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Is Running Better Than Walking For Weight Loss?

I received this question from my “Ask Shane” page and the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is a really good question. There’s not a straight up and down yes or no answer so I’ll do my best to explain the factors you’ll want to consider.

In reality both running and walking are effective means of exercising for losing weight. The idea of one or the other being “better” is the tricky part to this question. That’s where we get into the “it kind of depends” grey area.

Although you’ll frequently find debate over this subject with fitness professionals, physicians, and the like, I’ve always thought people are splitting hairs when arguing for one way or the other. The truth of the matter is both running and walking only make up one piece of the puzzle for weight loss. They could both be adjusted in terms of duration, intensity, and workload to get to the same place.

Determining which one is best for weight loss for YOU is a matter of looking at your individual situation. If I were giving you advice on which one to use as your fitness coach these would be the things we’d look at and discuss.

Current Level Of Physical Fitness And Conditioning

Let’s start with the basics first. Are you deconditioned and out of shape completely from not exercising at all or would you consider yourself active but needing to increase time with exercise? Obviously if you’re a beginner with exercise or just starting back after a long period of being inactive, you’ll want to start with walking as your preferred choice of aerobic exercise.

You should look to progress with your exercise at a pace that allows you build a solid foundation. This is essential on multiple levels. Not only will it decrease the risk of injury but it also allows your body to adapt better with the increased demands of exercise.

There’s also a psychological component here that shouldn’t be dismissed. The last thing you want to be doing is pushing yourself too hard coming out of the gate. You may feel discouraged, overly sore, and be less inclined to stick with it.

I tell my Charleston personal training clients that even 15 minutes of aerobic exercise daily with walking in the beginning is better than trying to run for 3 minutes and be so gassed that you’d have to quit. More on that in a minute. The bottom line is I would almost always recommend walking over running in the beginning of an exercise program.

Body Weight

The amount of excess body fat you have certainly plays a factor in this decision as well. If you’re significantly overweight you need to be concerned with the amount of load bearing pressure you put on your joints.

I cringe when I watch shows like the “Biggest Loser” when the trainers have obese individuals trying to run long distances with grueling workouts. This is not good on many levels but I understand it’s all part of the show. Unfortunately, it gives some people watching it unrealistic expectations. What you don’t see is what undoubtedly occurs behind the scenes with some individuals dropping out or getting injured. Mark my word it’s only a matter of time before someone has a heart attack or stroke on one of these shows.

The point is low impact exercise is preferred for significantly overweight or obese individuals starting an exercise program. Over time short bouts of running could be factored in but only once a level of conditioning is established along with joint stability with resistance exercise on the legs.

Running puts a significant amount of load bearing pressure on the knees and ankles which can be counterproductive if the body isn’t ready for it. The more time you spend strengthening the muscles and connective tissue that supports the joints the better prepared you’ll be do place stress on them.

Walking would be far more favorable with overweight individuals due to the decreased amounts of load bearing pressure. Other forms of aerobic exercise like swimming, rowing, elliptical, stationary bike, etc, would also be effective and more appropriate.

Health Concerns And Other Factors

Obviously there will also be factors like issues with the low back, hips, knees, feet, or health concerns that wouldn’t permit an individual to run or have it be in their best interest. Does this mean they can’t still see positive results losing weight with walking and other forms of low-impact aerobic exercise? Of course not.

Walking can be an ideal form of aerobic exercise when combined with the right diet and lifestyle changes. There’s nothing to the premise that you must be able to run or jog in order to lose weight.

Some individuals like to run because they enjoy it and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean there are not alternatives however. Remember from a physiological standpoint your body doesn’t care how you go about increasing heart rate and respiration.

The duration and intensity of the physical activity you’re doing will determine the caloric expenditure and energy systems being used. You may need to walk for longer durations to get the same caloric expenditure of running for shorter time periods but so be it.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a runner. It’s just not something that I enjoy. I still do it but it’s usually with shorter duration interval training routines. There are lots of ways to get in cardiovascular exercise. As you probably know I’m a big proponent of doing burst training type workouts. These workouts have you doing short bursts of high intensity effort followed by brief recovery periods.

Anyone who thinks you can’t get in cardio while doing resistance training hasn’t done a burst training workout. It doesn’t matter who you are, doing a set of squats followed by some kettlebell swings and mountain climbers for example is going to get your heart rate and respiration up big time.

There are countless bodyweight and functional training exercises you could do that don’t involve high impact load bearing pressure on the joints.  A fitness professional can help you put together routines that include enough cardio that you’d never have to run if you weren’t able or preferred not to.

The Big Picture On Whether Running Or Walking Is Best For Weight Loss

As you can see there’s no straight answer to this question. Both can be very effective depending on your individual situation. In my twenty plus years as a fitness coach I can tell you most people are overly concerned with the exercise component with weight loss anyways.

Diet and nutrition will make up 70% or more of your overall results. While exercise is certainly important there’s no need to be obsessed with how many calories you burned during a workout. See my post on “Can You Out Exercise A Poor Diet?” for more on this subject.

I certainly don’t want to dismiss the value of running in a weight loss program however. For individuals healthy enough to do so, I’d recommend working up to it. If for nothing else to do short-duration, high-intensity interval routines. You don’t have to get to the point where you can run non-stop for several miles but being able to do short bursts can be very beneficial.

Progressing from point A to B with walking to running is best achieved with a slow and steady approach. Start with walking at a steady pace for 30 minutes or as long as you can go. If you can only do 5-10 minutes at first that’s ok. Keep after it on a daily basis and look to add more duration over time. Take a break if you need to and progress at your own pace. With walking the longer the duration the better. If you can work up to 45-60 minutes and have the time to do so, by all means go for it.

If you want to progress with jogging and light running next, look to do staggered intensity type workouts. This is where you’d walk for several minutes then run for a minute. You can change the amount of time you’re doing runs as you progress. This is the best approach to building up your conditioning while easing into running. The “walk-run” type approach works far better in my experience than trying to just start running for longer distances or times.

With the right preparation and progression in place running can be a more time efficient and effective form of exercise for weight loss. Once again you could still see very good results with doing burst training type resistance workouts and longer duration walking for additional aerobic exercise. It’s going to come down to the time you can commit to exercise and what you can physically do.

So where does all this leave us with the bottom line. Do you have to run to lose weight? No, there are plenty of alternatives for those who can’t or would prefer not to. However, many people who are healthy enough and in good enough conditioning to run will certainly benefit from the higher intensity and increased caloric expenditure with running over walking.

There’s no denying that 30 minutes of walking isn’t the same as thirty minutes of running regardless of the intensity. From a pure weight loss perspective I’ll just say that there’s little physiological benefit from always doing long-duration bouts of jogging or low-moderate intensity running. If that’s what you enjoy then by all means go and do it. Just be cautious of overtraining injuries from the constant load bearing pressure on the joints.

I tend to recommend that my weight loss clients look to do more staggered intensity (walk-run) type workouts alternated by a couple of interval training workouts each week. Variety is certainly key as a little bit of high-intensity, short-duration work combined with longer duration aerobic work tends to produce the best results.

You’ll have to find what works best for you but once again don’t overlook the importance of diet, nutrition, and other lifestyle factors like rest, stress management, etc. It’s the combination of doing a little bit of everything (resistance training, aerobic exercise, short bouts of high intensity effort, eating clean, etc.) that leads to long-term weight loss success.

Figuring out the best way to put together a fitness and nutrition program that works ideally for you can best be accomplished with the help of a coach or personal trainer. If you’re in the Charleston area I’d be happy to meet with you to provide my recommendations.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Fitness Training.