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Should You Run or Walk?

This month’s challenge is all about lacing up your sneakers and hitting the pavement, trail, or treadmill. It all counts: walking, hiking, trail-running, race-walking, even pool running.

Is it better to run or walk? The decision is personal. Let’s consider a few factors that might help you choose.

Which is more efficient? Running or walking? If you’re just looking to log the most miles in the least amount of time – running wins. Even going for a short run, a few times a week, is linked to longer life. Maybe you run during the week when you’ve got work or other commitments, and save longer walks for the weekend when you have a little more time.

Which has less injury? With aging, people may experience more aches and pains during high-impact exercise like running. Not surprisingly, injuries are more common with running vs. walking, and walking is safe for most adults, even at longer durations. However, running does not cause arthritis. In one analysis looking across 17 studies totaling over 100,000 people, recreational runners actually had a lower risk of hip or knee arthritis (3.5%) compared with non-runners (10%). (Elite and competitive runners had a higher risk.) If you have discomfort during or after runs, try alternating days of running with lower-impact activity. Consult a physical therapist about ways to increase your flexibility and strengthen your muscles to better support your joints. Make sure to follow your doctor’s advice, and listen to your body.

Which is harder? Chalk one up for running. If you prefer a more intense workout, go for it. But if running isn’t your “speed,” you can challenge yourself by walking uphill or increasing your walking pace for short intervals. While you don’t need to sprint, aim for a brisk pace. PCF-funded researcher Dr. June Chan of UCSF found that men with prostate cancer who walked three or more hours a week at a brisk pace after diagnosis had a 57 percent lower risk of recurrence than men who walked at a slower pace, for less than three hours a week.

Which is better for your brain? Exercise improves many aspects of mental health and well-being, in both the short-term (“runner’s high,” better sleep), and long-term (lower risk of anxiety, protecting your brain from strokes). The relationship between exercise intensity (e.g., walking vs. running) and mental health is complex. The good news: you have options. For example, replacing sitting time with 15 minutes of vigorous activity (like running) OR with an hour of less-intense activity (like walking) is linked to lower risk of depression.

Which has more overall health benefits? Many studies measure “moderate to vigorous physical activity” (MVPA), which essentially combines brisk walking and running (along with other types of exercise). Being active (walking, running, or otherwise) on a regular basis lowers the risk of several types of cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and even early death. Exercise as vigorously as you’re able: some studies have shown greater benefit with vigorous (vs moderate) activity.

Conclusion: There’s room for personal choice in the walking-vs-running debate. Not feeling up for a long run today? No worries – try the first 10 minutes, then check in with yourself and adjust your pace. Every mile, at any pace, brings health benefits and gets you closer to your goal of 100 Miles in March.