We might not complain about walking but it is natural to not want to run at the drop of a hat. I am often asked, “do I need to run if I am walking daily?” How should we think about walking and running given that our financial returns, cardiac health, osteoporosis, mental clarity, muscle mass, cognitive decline, environmental pollution, and social status are only a few of the things that are connected with both?
Recently, within a space of 24 hours, I experienced 2 diametrically opposite observations from 2 rakhi sisters. The first, aged 55+, posted on social media of another podium finish at yet another endurance running race. The second, around age 50, messaged me that she now appreciates the value of being able to walk, having broken multiple bones in both legs on a European holiday, and now restricted to complete rest for many weeks.
Unlike swimming, an unnatural human activity that has to be taught, both walking and running come to us instinctively. Movement, or more precisely, locomotion, is a feature that distinguishes us animals from plants, and we humans accomplish it by walking and, sometimes, running. [Cycling requires a bicycle but not a helmet!]
I have already told you Why You Need Not Run but that does not imply that you must not run. Nor does it imply that you must!
If we use both a microscope and a telescope, we can capture a better view of how both walking and running can be held wisely in your portfolio through various stages of your life. Let us slice and dice so you can put together a perfect dish that might evolve through your life based on prevailing circumstances.
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Wrongly Linking Walking with Running
Is Walking Exercise? No!
Form Risk First
Main Biological Differences
The Beauty of Walking
Why Should We Walk?
Where does Walking overtake Running?
1234To cover high mileage
1234To merge into life
1234To connect with nature
1234To travel or commute
1234To meet friends or acquaintances
1234To listen and learn
1234To use one or both hands
What Gaps can Running Fill?
What will Neither Running nor Walking improve?
(Lifecycle) Portfolio Construction
1234The 3 core investments
1234The kick for your portfolio
1234Constraints and Balancing the Portfolio
Estimating your ROTI
This paragraph isn’t about motivation hacks. Instead, I hope that by the time you finish reading this article you will feel more motivated to walk or run. If you find that you generally struggle with achieving all the things you’d like to achieve in any aspect of your life, please do reach out to me if you want systematic science-based guidance.
Wrongly Linking Walking with Running [top]
As they both involve our legs making contact with the ground to move us forward it is natural to link walking with running. The similarity ends there and so, although the question “do I need to run if I walk?” often feels like a natural one to ask, you will soon understand why walking and running ought to be given quite different considerations when planning for good health.
Is Walking Exercise? No! [top]
It is important to address this question early on because its answer will help you plan your week better. To begin with, a simple definition of exercise helps guide the answer: exercise is activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.
Although it burns energy, mostly fat, walking should not be considered to be an exercise for most of us. For a toddler learning to walk, it is a skill being learned. For an extremely elderly person in a good state of health, say above the age of 90, walking is likely to be an exercise. For someone recovering from a medical procedure after which walking feels extremely traumatic, returning to “normal walking” is simply part of their therapy – not quite exercise. After therapy, they ought to return to “normal exercise”.
If you are below the age of 70 (or 80?) the role of walking when considering physical fitness should be minimal. Yet, I encourage you to walk as much as possible. Why the apparent mismatch?
First, note that I said ‘considered minimal’ not ‘zero’.
Second, ‘considering minimal’ does not mean you should do it minimally.
Third, at any age, if you are sedentary and obese then, to start off, walking itself is strenuous enough to be considered exercise – but that should not be what you settle for even if you don’t want to ever run.
Fourth, it’s important to understand why its role should be kept minimal when considering exercise and what you should do instead.
Fifth, read about the Beauty of Walking below so you get more of it into your typical day.
Form Risk First [top]
We are all built slightly differently from each other. There is, however, an ideal way to walk and an ideal way to run that we are all potentially capable of. It is typically our path through life that gradually moves us away from perfect posture when walking or perfect form when running. Given that running is much more intense and stressful for the body than walking, any deviations from perfect form along with incorrect progression in mileage are likely to increase injury risk much more than imperfect posture does when walking.
Main Biological Differences between Walking and Running [top]
The biomechanics of walking and running are quite different which is why if you were to watch someone running in slow-motion, they do not look like they are walking. From heel to head, the movement patterns and impact on your body differ. When you walk on pavement, you will hit the ground with a heel strike. When you run, you should not heel strike. [You probably do heel strike as it is a very common error and there are simple ways to correct it.] From your feet, as you move upward, the bones that connect at every joint have a different trajectory when you walk versus running the same distance. The muscles that support your skeleton and propel your movement also fire differently when you walk rather than run.
Beyond the joints, bones, and muscles, the activities of your other systems also vary between walking and running. When your brain detects you are exercising (i.e., running) it will work to direct resources away from digestion, procreation, or even the production of urine. When you are fit and healthy and walk, these processes are not altered in any significant manner.
It is the cardiorespiratory system that we most commonly think about when distinguishing between running and walking. When you run, your heart and your lungs have to work harder to get oxygen from the air outside your body to the working muscles to burn fat within your body. The circulatory system also works harder to move nutrients required for the working muscles and to clear away waste from the engines that are working much harder.
Conclusion: running is both different from walking and places greater demands on your body’s systems.
The Beauty of Walking [top]
What makes walking beautiful is that it is something we can all do from the age of 2 to 122. We learn to run only once we can walk as toddlers. At the other end of life, when we’re very old, we continue to walk for many years beyond our life of running. If through the decades between now and 122 we remind ourselves about the beauty of walking, then we ought to be able to walk until our last day on earth. Such a simple if and then, but such few of us do it.
Why Should We Walk? [top]
We are our habits. Just like maintaining good posture, dental hygiene, and getting good sleep, walking is a habit that is excellent to maintain.
Just like maintaining good posture is not simply to prevent backaches, and dental hygiene is not simply to have a beautiful smile, walking has multiple benefits beyond just burning calories. An unfortunate way that many people discover the benefits of walking is by being very sedentary. This always leads to a deterioration of health – simple laws of biology! Then, following many months of walking daily for non-trivial distances, they discover they are more physically capable, mentally alert, and emotionally stable.
This is not to say that walking cures all ailments. Not at all. However, if one walks a sufficient amount daily, ailments are less likely to appear in the first place. Saying “prevention is better than cure” does not make you wise. Acting to prevent does!
Where does Walking overtake Running? [top]
To Cover High Mileage – Only extreme outliers in the world are biologically capable of running extreme distances throughout their entire life and studies show that doing so increases their health risks relative to running shorter distances. Even moderate mileage is something most recreational runners do for just a few years. It is just a tiny fraction of a percentage of the world’s population that actually runs moderate distances and at moderate speeds and consistently for many decades. On the other hand, considerably effective mileage through walking consistently for decades is both possible and being done by millions of ordinary humans around the globe in both developing and developed nations. [top]
To Merge into Life – The ease with which walking can be merged into your normal life, no matter what your day job, is a free lunch that is really worth taking advantage of. Simple example: people might raise an eyebrow if you head out for a run at 1pm but no one will think twice if they see you walk while taking a call during your lunch hour at the office. If you are conscious of your duty to yourself and the need to walk, you too can get 10,000 steps into your day with just a little bit of sensible planning. [top]
To Think – Compared with sitting to think without writing material, it is easier to think when we’re walking because our movement through space engages the brain in a way that makes it better tuned to thinking. The neuroscience experiments that support this evolutionary-biology-based explanation we can also confirm with our personal experiences. Try this simple hack: the next time you’re grappling with a problem that needs a solution requiring careful thinking, walk and talk to yourself through it (warning: others might think you are crazy so put on headphones so that they think you’re speaking on the phone). If you had a parallel universe to compare with, you would find that you come up with better solutions compared with if you just remained seated.
[Tip: If you are unable to walk e.g., you are sitting on a flight, the best tool to aid your seated thinking is a blank sheet of paper and a pen. You have to use them, of course 😊]
When you are running, you also have “me time” to think. However, running is an intense activity and one that requires some planning – time, place, shoes, attire, and shower. Thus, it isn’t optimal for fitting into your schedule for thinking during many random times in your day. When running it makes sense to not consciously think about your problems but to disconnect from them and focus on running with mindfulness. If you are lucky, you might just have a solution pop into your head during the run when you were least expecting it. There is no guarantee though that one will. [top]
To Connect with Nature – is great to do when walking or running. It is better to run outdoors and in nature rather than on a road flanked by buildings. It is easier to observe nature when you are walking because your pace is slower and because it is not so disruptive to stop often when walking were you to want to. When you are running it won’t feel right to stop each time you want to smell a flower, gaze at a particular leaf on a tree, or shake hands with an acquaintance. [top]
To Travel or Commute – is definitely more practical when walking than running. Though you may want to run when you think you’re about to miss that bus. [top]
To Communicate – on the phone is easier when walking than when running. In fact, I insist that if any phone call does not require you to make notes sitting down that you walk when you talk. The person at the other end is likely to enjoy a better conversation if you do because walking helps the brain think. You could suggest that they too walk wherever they are for a more engaging conversation. [top]
To Meet Friends or Acquaintances – is a smart activity to combine with a walk-talk. If you’ve ever met me in the last few years, you may have noticed my first proposal was a walk-talk. It might end up in a café in the final leg, but there’s invariably going to be an element of walk-talk. It is also highly likely that if I met you directly at the café, I would have done most, if not all, of my commute there on foot (or bicycle). [top]
To Listen and Learn – from an audio lecture with earphones is easier when walking than when running. When running we need to be highly vigilant to be safe. There is continuous switching between ‘safety focus’ and ‘enjoy the view focus’. Each time we switch focus automatically to ‘safety mode’ (perhaps many times a minute) we lose focus of what the audio lecturer said. Rewinding each time, using your hands, will feel like a nuisance. [top]
To Use one or Both Hands – Although it is easier to walk with your arms swinging by your side you can easily use one or both hands for something else e.g., holding an umbrella in the rain, a mobile phone to your ears, or shopping bags. Try that when running and it is likely to not go smoothly at all. [top]
What Gaps can Running Fill? [top]
24 years ago in Kenya, I saw school children running in single file for miles on their way to and from school. Running was a mode of transport probably not seen anywhere else in the world. For the remaining 7 billion of us, running is typically from a start point and end point that are the same – and done for the primary goal of maintaining or increasing physical fitness. We need not use running as a mode of transportation!
Tip: If you are running late when walking to a meeting, it can be easy to catch up if you keep alternating between running and walking – and you won’t break into a sweat! This is something my father taught me when I was a child. He’s 91 and flew as an independent traveller yesterday from England to India to complete a land transaction. He doesn’t need a wheelchair!
Speed ranges: are quite different in the general population between walking and running. Whereas 95% of the healthy population of adults might walk at between 4-7kmph for a 5km neighbourhood walk, the equivalent running speed range might be 5-20kmph for a 5km run. This has implications for both positive output and risk. [top]
Many of the health benefits that walking brings to you, running does too – and on turbo! Whether your goal is to create perspiration to flush out toxins, strengthen your immune system, get your blood flowing through all your limbs and to your brain better, improve muscular endurance, or increase your rate of fat burn, running wins hands down – be it mile for mile, or hour for hour.
Even if you walk for many hours daily for months on end, but do not run, when a situation arises that you have to run, you won’t find it easy. That’s quite simply because walking and running are different, as I said above. Perhaps the most significant contribution that running can bring to your life is increased cardiorespiratory performance. Although running will boost your mood when you do so, you cannot go for a run each time your mood needs a boost! However, scheduling 20-to-30-minute runs 3 times a week for the primary benefit of improved cardiac health is easy even for the busiest person I’ve known. Remember – successful people have time for everything important!
You don’t have to run, of course, to push your heart. However, simply by design, it’s the most time-efficient and lowest resource utilization activity you can do. The trick is to do it wisely – then you too can have a big ROTI.
Unless you walk carrying a load and climb up and down hills or stairs, walking will not increase your bone mineral density much. If you have fallen into the dairy industry trap and believe that consuming dairy decreases your chance of bone fractures at an old age, it’s important that you understand that it doesn’t and perhaps makes things worse (and there’s the cruelty to cows and calves too). Running, on the other hand, is an activity that puts considerable stress on the bones of your lower body, and triggers them to become stronger. You simply need to eat plants that have the minerals your bones need along with subjecting those bones to appropriate stress. (See section on risk)
You can get into a state of flow when running, something that is probably not going to happen when you walk. Here is what I mean. If you walk, without conversation and without listening to an audio track, you will not feel that time just passes by. Each minute does feel like a minute. On the other hand, if you were to look back at an hour’s run you just did, your memory of it will be “that felt like just a few minutes“. That is probably a sign that you entered a state of flow.
While reading The Mindfulness and Running Duplet you will come to realize that, simply by design, compared with walking, running involves many requirements to be mindful and creates many opportunities for being mindful.
What will Neither Running nor Walking improve? [top]
Relative to being sedentary, even walking will improve many measures of fitness. It is good to think about what neither running nor walking will make much of an impact on.
Of the Health-Based measures of fitness:
Neither walking nor running will improve muscular strength though they will improve muscular endurance. You may stretch to support your walking and running but walking itself or running itself won’t improve your flexibility much. Your cardiorespiratory endurance will go up with running and both running and walking will help contribute to a better body composition i.e., lower body fat and not reduce muscle mass – unless you overdo the running.
Of the Skills-Based measures of fitness:
Both walking and running will help somewhat with balance as they involve continuous movement that keeps you in balance. Of course, if you were to walk on a log daily to cross a stream, that would help further. While walking won’t help much with speed, running clearly will. Running should improve physical coordination and reaction speeds via centres in the brain that drive this. Agility won’t improve too much with running unless you ensure you are running on trails that require you to be agile. Lower body power should improve somewhat from running, but not walking, but don’t expect to kick a football really far just because you run. Neither running nor walking will benefit your upper body power and so you won’t increase the distance you can send a ball with a bat strike.
- You cannot out-exercise a bad diet – not for long anyway. If you still haven’t understood the packet of lies that they tell you about alcohol, or appreciated the need to avoid animal products as much as possible – you are already shortening your Healthspan when you need not. Enjoy your food for 100+ years!
- If your foundation for good health – sleep – is not sorted out, the exercise and nutrition focus will limit your short term in ways you may not notice and your long term in ways you will be unable to then reverse.
- If you truly understand the need to move, and walking is the simplest activity for moving around we can all do from 2 to 122, then you will understand why it needs to form the foundation for a healthy and long life. Show me a person who hasn’t walked much their entire life and I can guarantee you they won’t be a healthy person when they are past 30. Show me a person who has walked a lot throughout their life, and if they’ve had sufficient rest and eaten sensibly, I will tell you they’re highly likely to significantly outlive the average citizen – without the need to run. Walking is a great ‘prevention is better than cure’ tool. Prevention is good, but now let’s think about thriving for longer.
The Kick for Your Portfolio [top]
Once you have movement-by-walking as your foundation, to improve your portfolio returns, it’s very useful to consider running as the cardio kick. Consider the 2 largest causes of early death among humans: heart disease and cancer.
Heart Disease [top]
To have a strong heart and associated circulatory system and respiration, the key action is some form of cardio which stresses those systems. You don’t have to run, but we know that running is an activity that is easiest to organize with minimum resources and doesn’t need another person for you to execute. It can be done outdoors in most parts of the world where humans live at most times of the year. Although a treadmill can be used to make your scheduling easier, try to schedule your life so that you run outdoors, preferably, in nature, for most runs of the year.
The question you have to ask yourself is, “Am I pushing my heart’s performance at least 2 times per week for at least 20 minutes?” If you actually pushed your cardiorespiratory system 3 times per week for 20 minutes, you’re done – home and dry! Whether it is running or some other form of cardio, you could do more than this and get further benefits, but here are 3 things to caution you about running:
- The sweet spot in terms of distance for using running to increase your Healthspan beyond what a healthy level of walking will provide is not a marathon (42km), half marathon (21km), or even 10km. Instead, focus on a distance (and equivalent speed) that you can do in 20-60 minutes. What is critical is that you are consistent with achieving this 2-3 times for most weeks of the year.
- Injuries from running can be removed from your path if you focus on just 3 easy-to-say but tough-to-do if you refuse to think:
- If the rest of your week is out of control e.g., your diet is not healthy or you don’t get appropriate rest, you might find you have heart problems because of running too much.
There are multiple pathways for running to significantly reduce your risk of cancer. Lowering growth hormones like insulin is associated with cancer development. Reducing inflammation and improving immune system function. Even by altering the metabolism of your bile acids which decreases exposure of your gastrointestinal tract to carcinogens. In general, the role of exercise in even simply reducing the time it takes for food to travel down your digestive system, reduces your total exposure time to carcinogens.
Portfolio Transition [top]
Transitioning to running as children requires various systems to adapt to work together. Phasing out running at an old age typically happens because of the degeneration of systems within us.
Alternative Investments [top]
Other forms of exercise like yoga, tennis, swimming, dance, golf [and the list is endless] can all be added to your portfolio. Each of these will have partial overlaps with the others, and with walking and with running. The key principle to bear in mind is that you need to enjoy what you are doing for at least 1/3 of the time i.e., don’t expect it to be enjoyable all the time because then it’s probably not doing you as much good as you are seeking.
Constraints and Balancing the Portfolio [top]
Appreciating that of the many constraints that you face it is time that is the most important one that remains throughout your life it makes sense to think about how your process-based goals, be they health-based or skills-based, are met within your typical week’s schedule. Once you know about your time available explicitly for exercise you can use that for those activities that need scheduling e.g., yoga class, matching up with a tennis partner. Other types of activities you may be able to merge into your normal day e.g., cycling to get groceries, walking while talking. The possibilities are endless and I talk about the idea in Recipes for Bigger ROTIs.
What you don’t measure you won’t control and manage well. Most runners use a GPS device (a wristwatch or a smartphone app) to measure the distance and other stats of each run. The rest of the population generally doesn’t track how many steps they’ve walked in a day. Actually, even avid runners don’t usually track how many steps they walk. If you are a runner and definitely if you are not, I strongly recommend you track your daily steps. Get a cheap fitness band (less than $20) to track your steps. If you don’t want to spend $20 then use your smartphone to track (but with a lot more errors) the number of steps you are walking daily. You may be shocked to discover that you don’t come anywhere close to a good number like 10,000 steps every day.
Keeping track of your daily steps will help gamify your movement target and you will see yourself improving as time goes by. Of course, just having the measurements but not looking at them and not doing anything to understand and improve on them won’t help. [Read about your small data and that money is in the detail]
Joint Pains – contrary to popular belief, runners have stronger joints than those who only walk. On the other hand, the data tells us that runners get injured very often whereas people who walk, pretty much never injure themselves. Where’s the catch? Well, if we look at the runners who stay injury-free for decades and compare them with runners who don’t, we can conclude that injuries in runners arise for 2 main reasons. [a] improper running form [b] imprudent scheduling (of frequency in a week, distance, speed). If you are an intelligent runner, you won’t get injured and you will have stronger bones, joints, and connective tissues than the average person. [top]
Accidents – It is easier to trip and fall when running on trails or uneven city road surfaces. On the one hand, running on uneven tracks poses a useful challenge that can be better for your overall health compared with a smooth running track or treadmill. However, in order to get the benefits of the added complexity, it is important that you are more careful e.g., run slower or don’t run at all in poor light. [top]
Health Status – If you are healthy, you can consider running. If you are unwell, you probably should not run. Walking is definitely possible even if you are unwell, in fact, it’s probably wise to walk unless you feel too weak to. If you are not weak (i.e., no urge to lie down) you can probably still walk and it might even do you good. The key is to listen to your body and assess if your fever is accompanied by weakness. [top]
Pregnancy – varies from female to female. Although a few women have reported running until quite late stages of pregnancy, this is not something you should hold up as a gold standard. On the other hand, although “complete bed rest” is prescribed by many doctors when a pregnancy isn’t super-smooth, the evidence suggests that it may not reduce overall risks at all, perhaps reducing some and increasing others. You appreciating even before Week 1 that pregnancy is natural not a medical condition will put you in the correct mindset to not be unduly affected by The Unholy Trinity and seek to rest more than you really need to. You don’t have to run at all if you don’t wish to, but do not give up walking – walk as much as you safely can. When I spend time in India, I see most women have never lost their ‘pregnancy fat’ which they need not have put on in the first place. There’s a safe bound within which your weight must remain as you progress through your pregnancy. Don’t risk your own health and your child’s future by being more sedentary than you ought to be. [top]
Estimating your ROTI [top]
ROTI = Return on Time Invested
It is wrong to collapse your health into a single dimension like calories or a number of steps. However, it can be useful to do so because of 2 key advantages: [a] it is process-goal-focused for the outcome goal of good health [b] and something you can easily measure every day. Here are some easy rules of thumb for comparing walking with running.
If you are 60 Kg and you run 1 kilometer, you will burn 60 calories.
If you walk, it will be 80% of that i.e., 20% less.
Note that you will take between 50% and 100% longer to walk that 1 kilometer (see: speed ranges above).
This means, your ROTI, your calorie burn per hour from walking will be significantly lower.
We all tend to walk at similar speeds. An unfit person can walk at about the same speed as a fit person.
When it comes to running there is a much wider variation in speed.
A useful conclusion is that you can burn close to twice as many calories with an hour of running than with an hour of walking. A significantly higher ROTI.
Note: we are talking about ROTI, not your total calories burned. It’s easy for anyone to burn many calories if they walked for a few hours, but not many can run for a few hours. [top]
Your walking stride maybe 0.8 metres.
Your running stride might be 50% longer (say) 1.2 metres.
When you walk you are likely to do 100 steps per minute.
When you run you might have a cadence of 160-190 steps per minute. Let’s say it’s 175.
Let’s fix a time budget, say an hour.
You are likely to walk 6000 steps.
If you run, you would achieve 10,500 steps! A significantly higher ROTI.
And you’d get all the benefits of running that walking won’t provide.
Instead of a time window for activity, if you had to cover a fixed distance, then because your run stride is longer, you will do fewer steps if you run that distance, so if you simply wanted to game the steps count it makes sense to walk – but you won’t get the higher benefits of running and your ROTI would be lower. You’ll cover the distance significantly faster if you run but with fewer steps taken. [top]
I wish you a life without emergency situations. The fact is that often these will pop up. Perhaps you are late for a flight because you lost track of time when duty-free shopping. Or perhaps your inbound connecting flight was delayed. Perhaps a meeting with your client or your boss overran and the gates will shut at your daughter’s performance at her annual school concert. If running will solve the problem and you are not comfortable with running, then a basic human movement form that could be your easy tool will now be your bottleneck.
Competitive Runners [top]
If you currently run competitively in recreational distance races they can be great for your current motivation. For many years in the past, you were not a competitive runner, and for many years in the future, you will not be a competitive runner. Today’s conversation is for you to think about how walking and running work together as part of your overall life plan.
Consistency Conquering [top]
Whether it is getting daily steps in through walking or running as per your planned schedule, what is key for extending your Healthspan is consistency. Don’t treat health as something to take care of when you find the time. Make it a daily thing – a duty to yourself as a human being.
Parting Message [top]
As you will have understood now, the question should not be
“Should I walk or run for exercise?”
“How do I think about walking and running (or some other form of cardio) for a long Healthspan?”
Having walking as a foundation and using running or equivalent forms of cardio judiciously along with activities that help maintain both health-based and skills-based measures of fitness will help you also maintain good mental, emotional, and spiritual health – if you also eat right and sleep right.
Those are a lot of “ands” and “ifs” but I know you have it in you to make it happen.
If everything you do is consistent with your core beliefs and desires, then a long and healthy life of joy is pretty much guaranteed to be yours. If you want to be guided in detail, you know how to reach me, and if you found this useful, please do share it with others.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.