If your goal is to lose weight and improve your health, what's going to be better for you: walking or running? Like most fitness-related questions, this one takes me back to a joke I heard in third grade:
What weighs more: a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks?
Just as you may be tempted to shout "bricks!" (as I would often do right up through eighth grade, when the subtleties of this riddle and "no soap radio" were finally explained to me), you may be tempted to assume that running is the greater "burn" of the two exercises. And, like all questions in fitness, I remind you that nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
Let's break it down.
Calorie burn is based on energy consumption over a period of time, and the best way to gauge that energy consumption is by monitoring your heart rate as you exercise. But heart rate itself is based on oxygen consumption. In other words, as your body increases its need for oxygen due to exertion, the heart has to pump more oxygen rich blood to the extremities and the heart rate goes up. One of the main reasons that the heart rate is elevated in running is that, every time your foot hits the ground, that little bit of impact puts pressure on the diaphragm, the main muscle that controls respiration, making it slightly harder to take a full breath. So as your foot strike knocks a little bit of wind out of you, the heart is trying to play catch-up and pumps harder to get the oxygen to the muscles that need it. Plus, depending on your running style, that repeated impact can lead to injuries down the road.
Walking is, by nature, low-impact: there is significantly less impact as the foot hits the ground and, consequently, the lungs have a greater opportunity to provide the much-needed oxygen. Therefore, the heart rate does not get as high with walking.
But that's the kind of linear thinking I hate.
I love watching runners, real runners, because they make it look so effortless. Even sprinters try to relax their bodies as much as possible so that they may put the effort where it will best suit them and not energy is wasted through worthless tension. Running mid- to long-distance is, ideally, an opportunity to use gravity and and momentum to your advantage. It takes time and practice to get used to, but once you understand the effortless form, running becomes relaxingly meditative.
Walking can be a wonderfully leisurely pass time. Go for a stroll in the park, pause, watch the birds, pause, stroll some more. Certainly the calories burn is there, and, if you have been inactive it is a great way to get started in an active lifestyle. But the burn is not as significant as running for the same period of time.
But let's take a look at race walking. There is nothing low key about race walking and trying to maintain a rapid pace over a period of time and/or distance. Quite the opposite: the body has to work extra hard because, instinctively, we tell ourselves to break into a jog or a run when moving that quickly. The muscles of the legs, the glutes, the core, as well as the chest, arms, shoulders and back all have to work to create the momentum to move at such a speed. Increase the incline that you're walking on and you will increase the exertion level. Increase the amount your work your arms, and again, the level of exertion, and consequently your heart rate and calorie burn go up as well.
A few of important things to keep in mind:
Questions about any of this? Shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Michael Feigin, M.S., C.S.C.S. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thefitnessguru