by Robert Glatter, MD
The next time you decide that you are not in the mood to go running, you may be comforted by new research showing that a brisk walk may be just as beneficial for keeping your heart healthy, and keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol down.
This is great news since fewer than 50 percent of Americans are able to meet the CDC’s recommendation of engaging in at least 2.5 hours of moderate to intense aerobic exercise a week.
Results of a new study published April 4th in the American Heart Association Journal, Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, discovered that individuals who walked briskly were able to reduce their high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and blood sugar (diabetes), as much as runners did—and actually to a higher degree.
Investigators evaluated over 33,000 runners who were participating in the National Runner’s Health Study and over 15,000 walkers who were part of the National Walkers’ Health Study over a six year period. All of the participants were aged 18-80, with the majority in their 40s and 50s. The research subjects answered specific detailed questionnaires regarding aspects of their physical activity, and the researchers were able to determine how much energy they expended according to the distance they reported running or walking. They also reported any pre-existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or diabetes that were previously diagnosed by medical providers.
The researchers discovered that while intense running required more energy than brisk or moderate-intensity walking, both activities produced a drop in high blood pressure, diabetes or high blood sugar, elevated cholesterol or heart disease during the study period. They also noted that the more the participants ran or walked, the greater the benefit in lowering their risk for heart disease.
While brisk walking certainly isn’t as intense as running, the researchers explain that both activities ultimately involve the same muscle groups, which may potentially explain why their results for reducing risk for heart disease are similar. Results from this study suggest that the type of exercise may not be as important as how much individuals run or walk.
Here is a rundown of the specifics from the study:
Running decreased the chances of having elevated cholesterol by 4.3%, while walking reduced the risk by 7%.
Running reduced the risk of diabetes by 12.1%, while walking reduced the risk by 12.3%.
Running reduced risk for elevated blood pressure by 4.2%, while walking reduced the risk by 7.2%.
Running reduced the risk for coronary artery disease risk by 4.5%, while walking decreased it by 9.3%.
Overall, the results from this study provide reassurance that those who walk briskly derive the same if not more significant benefits compared to runners. This is quite appealing since walking may be a more reasonable activity for a larger segment of the population compared to running. It is also more sustainable as an activity as we age, in light of the potential risk for injuries related to running.
Since running is a more intense type of physical activity, runners generally burn more calories and develop a higher intensity of energy expenditure over a shorter period of time. However, the results of the study reinforce the concept that any consistent physical activity can produce long term benefits. In fact, in the summer of 2012, the CDC reported that more Americans were walking for exercise, with those who walk being nearly 3 times more likely to meet the recommended level of physical activity.
The CDC and the AHA recommend that adults spend a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, doing moderate-intensity exercise, or at least 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week engaged in vigorous activity.
Walking is a beneficial way to begin to change sedentary behavior–particularly in those people with elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or coronary artery disease–who are at the highest risk for developing complications from such conditions. It is also recommended for healthy people who want to avoid these dangerous conditions as well. Overall, research supports the concept that it is not the intensity–but instead the regularity of exercise that reduces high blood pressure and risk for coronary artery disease.