Fitness

Running versus walking for weight loss

Want to lose weight quickly? Our fitness expert James Fell tells us whether running or walking is the best option.

woman runner in race

(Photo by Wadleyphotography.com)

Although it may sometimes seem that way, I’m not always disappointed in the fitness reporting at The New York Times. Sometimes they do a good job.

This recent piece looked at the difference between running and walking as weight loss aids, and the author successfully covered the primary reason for the superiority of running to lose weight over walking.

You see, it’s not all about calories burned.

Running may burn more calories than walking (yes, running evens burns more calories per kilometre – sorry), but the reality is that weight loss is almost always an issue of managing caloric intake.

And NYT got it right: Even when energy expenditure was the same, the runners were better at managing their calories consumed than walkers. The NYT analysis looked at post-exercise appetite, and there’s a pile of research to show that after intense exertion we don’t feel like eating much.

There are some ideas as to why, and one is that intense exertion requires the body to prioritize sending oxygenated blood to the muscles. The first non-critical system to get the less-oxygenated blood is digestion. This lack of blood flow to the digestive system (because your muscles are busy hogging it all) has a tendency to make your stomach feel sub-optimal, so afterwards you don’t feel like eating much.

There could be something Stone Age about it as well, like if you’re running as though you’re being chased by a sabre-toothed murder beast then natural selection would favour those who didn’t feel like they needed to stop and chow down on some berries during their headlong terror flight.

But decreased sensations of hunger after running are only part of the reason why runners are better at controlling caloric intake, and therefore leaner. The subject of how exercise affects appetite has become an area of intense interest for me. It’s a primary theme throughout my forthcoming book (which, pardon the plug, will be released early next year).

I think walking is great, and we should all do more of it, but there are undeniable advantages to running versus walking. One is that the greater intensity translates to greater brain benefits. It enhances what is called “executive function,” which controls your decision-making ability, and eating well is all about making good decisions.

The higher intensity of running also requires more mental effort. Going for a stroll isn’t so hard, but pushing your body hard requires intense mental focus. It’s a workout for your brain, and the brain adapts. It gets stronger, and this enhanced mental capability is useful in terms of making better dietary choices and having the determination to stick to an eating regimen that leads to weight loss.

That’s physiological, but there’s a psychological component as well. Running has a tendency to make you start viewing food more as a source of fuel than simply for pleasure. When you’re working on making your body into a higher-performing machine, you’re more inclined to put rocket-fuel-go-juice into it as opposed to something that’s going to make it sputter and gasp.

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