Choosing Fitness: Running or Walking?

By Tracy Morris

walking vs runningYou’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn’t given in to either the running or walking bug at some point in her life. When you reach that transition in life after school, whether that’s high school or college, and “real” adult life with all its typical sitting-still comes to bear, it’s pretty easy to feel a need to simply move more. So, is running or walking better?

Or if you’ve managed to maintain an occasional amount of physicality, whether through team sports or dancing in clubs, a time may come when you want to increase the regularity with which you flex your muscles and cardiovascular system. After all, daily or at least several times weekly exercise is the oft-heard recommendation by health experts.

Walking and/or running are often first on women’s lists as fitness options for several reasons. First, they’re both free, except for the cost of shoes and time. Next, either can be done alone or with companions, making for variations to keep your fitness commitment interesting.

But how do you decide which – running or walking – is ideal for your needs and interests?

Podiatrist Howard Palamarchuk, M.D., offers the following comparisons to help you decide:

Woman runningRunning:

• Is more aerobically intense

• Burns more calories in less time

• Requires your feet strike the ground at approximately three (3) times your weight

• Can lead to arthritic joints

• Requires time following a run for the body to recover


Woman walking

Walking at a brisk pace:

• Can spare the injuries that are more typical from running

• Takes roughly twice the amount of time to burn the same amount of calories as running

• Has your feet pounding the ground at about one and a half (1.5) times your weight

• Requires little to no significant recovery time following a walk

Dr. Palamarchuk, an Assistant Professor of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine in Philadelphia, says that running is a good exercise for relatively healthy 20-something women, but that once women are in their 30’s, several risk factors for injury come into play. “For example, after childbirth, a woman could have increased ligamentous laxity and hormonal changes that possibly could lead to injury in joints and ligaments.” Weight gain also has an impact, as the burden on your feet increases.

Women who are perimenopausal or menopausal can have hormone changes that can translate to increase risk for injury. Dr. Palamarchuk explains, “Such changes cause the body to start tapping into its own calcium bone bank. This could lead to osteoporosis, which increases the risk of stress fractures and osseous injuries in runners’ shins, hips, femurs and backs.”

All things considered, walking at brisk paces — race walking — could spare many of these injuries. Palamarchuk, a former Olympic-class speedwalker and now a support physician and researcher for competition level runners says that many of his patients come in due to over-use from upping their miles or otherwise pushing themselves beyond their achieved limits.

Competitors aren’t the only ones who can strive too hard. Even those of us who just want to look and feel better need to be thoughtful in our approach.

“We often see women who’ve been told by their doctors to start an exercise program, but then they over-do from the start, or they have the wrong shoes for their foot type, and an immediate injury ensues,” says Palamarchuk. Even very minor injuries that warrant no treatment beyond rest can cause beginners to become frustrated and give up.

Taking enough time in between exertion as high-impact as running is important for injury prevention, but sometimes there’s a Catch-22 when too much time is taken, such as when a woman stops for pregnancy or a long stretch of intolerable weather. If she has tendencies toward weight gain with inactivity, then returning to her exercise can be a difficult transition. If not handled with patience and the right shoe, injuries are likely, ranging from stress fractures to arch strain to knee damage.

Running vs Walking Shoes do make a differenceSpeaking of shoes: yes, it makes a difference. Dr. Palamarchuk and other sports medicine experts do not recommend you head to the nearest discount shoe store and simply grab the first shoe that catches your eye. After examining your feet and gait, a podiatrist can actually write a shoe prescription that sports specialty stores can accurately fill for the most supportive shoe for your needs. Some feet may need orthotics, special inserts to correct for different structural conditions that left uncorrected are more likely to lead to injury.

Some women will benefit from a podiatric exam before starting a running or walking program. “People who already tend to have foot problems, like bunions or hammer-toes, or who can’t get through a day without pain or achiness in your feet, should see a physician first.”

Running vs Walking impact on kneesPerhaps obviously, getting general clearance via physical examination by your primary care physician is important, too. Women in their 40’s and older should ask about the need for bone density tests – before they find out about osteoporosis the hard way, through a stress fracture from walking or running.

Dr. Palamarchuk studies running and walking at Temple’s Gait Lab. He says there’s no denying that running involves more violent impact to the body and will, in most cases, lead to arthritic knees after a time. He relates the story of a man who was seen by runners everywhere as a guru, a sort of prophet for running; even he finally came to a point in his life when running was simply no longer safe for his body. And not every body is cut out for running – genetically and structurally – regardless of the age they begin at or how carefully it’s done.

“To some extent, there’s a self-realization factor at play,” Palamarchuk theorizes. “I’ve seen people who were literally champions who suddenly get to that point where they have to be told ‘that’s it’. That’s where walking comes in for the majority of people. I try to encourage patients that it’s not the end of the world, that walking can be satisfying. But those who are in denial are the ones who keep getting in trouble, and coming back for more treatment.”

For more information, the American Podiatric Medical Association offers helpful information on their website.

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