Physical Health

Walking vs running: Which is better for your health?

Cardio exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health - walking and running are both great options. Here’s a roundup of the main benefits of adding them into your exercise routine.

Exercising outdoors in small groups, and without equipment, is one of the safest and most enjoyable ways to stay active.

Walking and running are two obvious choices that meet the brief – and offer a range of health benefits. So, which one should you choose?

Why cardio exercise is good for you

Regardless of your age, weight or sporting prowess, cardio exercise – any continuous exercise that gets your heart rate up and burns a number of calories – is great for your health and any weight loss goals you might have.

"There is scarcely anything else you can do in your day that will give you such an abundance of benefits," says Adjunct Professor Trevor Shilton, director of active living at the Heart Foundation.

Regular cardio exercise helps with body fat loss, reduces your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, helps build strong bones and ward off colds and flu.

When it comes to mental health, cardio exercise helps you manage stress and improves your mood, thanks to the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain.

Walking vs running

If you’re wondering whether walking or running is the better choice, it’s important to understand it’s not an either-or situation.

"Walking and running are both great choices for improving fitness and health," says Adjunct Professor Shilton.

"Walking regularly for 30-60 minutes a day can achieve all the same health benefits as running. The only disadvantage is that it will take you longer, due to its slower pace."

Indeed, Department of Health physical activity and exercise guidelines recommend 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity like brisk walking, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous physical activity like running, each week.

Benefits of walking

Walking is something everyone can do. It’s easy, cost-free and flexible. You can do it at any time of the day – as a dedicated exercise session, or as a mode of transport to the shops or a friend’s house.

"If you're looking for an inclusive form of exercise like starting a walking group, it's something that most people will be able to participate in," says accredited exercise physiologist Tim Douge, a spokesperson for Exercise & Sports Science Australia.

Adjunct Professor Shilton says walking carries fewer injury risks and is especially suitable for older adults and people who are overweight or affected by chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

"Because walking is low-impact, the joints and bones are only put under minimal stress, and therefore the risk of injury is lower," he explains.

Walking is a great choice if you’re new to exercising or returning after a break.

"For people coming from a sedentary base, there are improvements in quality of life and functional capacity, such as improvements in strength, balance, heart and lung performance, and memory and cognition," says Tim.

Benefits of running

If you want to really improve your fitness, running is a great choice.

"The intensity can be varied from anything from a jog through to a sprint," says Tim. "With running, you’re putting consistent stress on the cardiovascular system, and you're going through a significant range of motion in terms of accelerating and decelerating the body."

It’s also ideal for working towards a goal, like a 30-minute run without stopping or aiming to beat a personal-best time.

"Many runners enjoy the feeling of achievement that it engenders," says Adjunct Professor Shilton. "What many call an ‘endorphin rush’ can really get you hooked."

And despite many people thinking it's high impact, running can be good for your knees and joints. "People often think putting more pressure on the joints leads to increased wear and tear, but most of the research suggests that it's the opposite effect," says Tim.

"Research shows that people who have a degenerative condition like osteoarthritis in the knee joints, if they are runners or have been runners, the progression of their disease is slower."

If you’re new to running, Adjunct Professor Shilton says it can be helpful to start with alternating intervals of running and walking. "In a 30-minute session, you might choose to alternate running for five minutes and walking for five minutes," he says.

That said, the risk of osteoarthritis increases among runners who’ve had a knee injury or knee surgery in the past, have a higher body mass index (BMI) or are in an older age group – so it’s best to tread carefully.

As always, speak with your GP before beginning any new exercise and start slowly. If any exercise doesn’t feel right for your body or fitness level, stop and consult a medical professional. And consider finding the right sports shoe for your activity.

Looking to lose weight?

Carrying extra weight can take its toll at any stage and age. That’s why we’ve partnered with Prima Health Solutions, to give you free access to our Healthy Weight for Life program to help you improve your quality of life.

The program is available to HCF members who are overweight and have osteoarthritis or are at risk of developing chronic conditions. You must have had an eligible hospital product for 12 months and meet the program’s eligibility criteria.

Words by Angela Tufvesson
Updated November 2021

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