Walk, or Run, to Lower Heart Disease Risk: Benefits Are Similar

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A brisk walk may be just as good as a run for keeping the the heart healthy.

That’s encouraging, considering less than half of Americans meet the government’s recommendation of at least 2.5 hours of moderate to intense aerobic exercise a week. A new study published in the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology found that walkers lowered their risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes as much as runners.

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Researchers studied 33,060 runners who were participating in the National Runners’ Health Study and 15,045 walkers enrolled in the National Walkers’ Health Study over six years. All the participants were between the ages of 18 to 80, with most in their 40s and 50s. The exercises answered questionnaires about their physical activity, and the researchers calculated how much energy they expended based on the distance the volunteers reported walking or running. They also recorded any doctor-diagnosed heart conditions.

(MORE: A Daily Walk Can Reduce the Power of Weight-Gaining Genes)

The scientists found that while vigorous running required slightly higher levels of energy than moderate intensity walking, both translated into a parallel drop in incidence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or heart disease over the study period. And the more the participants walked or ran, the greater the benefit in lowering their heart disease risk.

Although walking isn’t as intense as running, the study authors say both target the same muscle groups, which could explain why their results in improving heart health are so similar. The results suggest that the type of exercise may not be as important as how much people walk or run.

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Running significantly reduced the risk for being diagnosed with hypertension by 4.2% while walking reduced the risk by 7.2%
  • Running reduced the chances of having high cholesterol by 4.3% and walking by 7%
  • Running lowered risk of diabetes by 12.1% while walking dropped the risk by 12.3%
  • Running reduced coronary heart disease risk by 4.5% compared to 9.3% for walking.

The results are encouraging since walking may be a more appealing and sustainable for more people than running. Because running is a more intense form of physical activity, runners are able to burn more calories and exercise the heart to higher levels within a shorter period of time, but the results support the idea that any physical activity, as long as it’s consistent, can have lasting benefits. Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control released a report showing that more Americans are walking for exercise, and that those who walk are three times more likely to meet the recommended level of physical activity.

The TIME story on the report detailed the benefits:

What’s more, people who walk are significantly more likely — three times more likely on average, in fact — to meet the government’s physical activity recommendations. Overall, the survey data showed, more Americans were meeting that goal in 2010 (48%) than in 2005 (41%), and more walkers (60%) than non-walkers (30%) met the guideline. The more people walked, the more likely they were to meet the exercise requirement: compared with non-walkers, those who walked 10-19 minutes a week were 34% more likely to meet the standard; those walking 20-29 minutes a week were 52% more likely; people who walked 30-59 minutes a week were 80% more likely; and those walking more than hour a week were nearly four times more likely to get the minimum amount of recommended exercise.

MORE: An Easy Way to Get Enough Exercise: Take a Walk

More data will likely continue to compare intense activity such as running with more moderate exercise like walking for everything from weight loss to longevity, but more studies show that for many, particularly those who are relatively sedentary, walking may be a healthy and effective way to start increasing physical activity. And research also supports the idea that for the heart, it’s not the quantity so much as the consistency of exercise that may keep atherosclerosis and high blood pressure at bay.