Mixed Messages: Running Beats Walking Beats Running

Reporting on research can either bring clarity or perplexity. Mixed messages came recently from two studies based on the same data yielding two different outcomes. The outcomes differed because the studies examined different questions. Researchers used the National Runners (n=33 060) and Walkers (n=15 945) Health Study cohorts. One study asked what effect do the different activities have on heart disease risk factors. The other asked if equivalent changes in moderate walking and running produce equivalent weight loss. The result was headlines that proclaim a win for walking, a win for running, and a tie.

Let’s take a closer look. From the study examining whether walking or running has a greater effect on heart risk, Paul Williams and Paul Thompson published results in Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. Reports on this paper carried headlines like “Brisk Walk Healthier Than Running.” The Guardian reported that brisk walking reduces the risk of heart disease more effectively than running when the energy expenditure of both activities is balanced. The article was definitively positive for walking. Compare that account to the conclusions of the researchers: “Equivalent energy expenditures by walking and running exercise produced similar risk reductions for hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes mellitus, and possibly CHD.” Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

In the second study, Williams analyzed results from questionnaires completed at baseline and after 6.2 years from the 15,237 walkers and 32,216 runners. Published in the April issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Williams’ study found runners lost more weight than walkers, and the change in BMI was significantly larger in those who ran than for those walking. Media reports about this study reported, “Runners Achieve Greater Weight Loss Than Walkers.”

So we had two studies that used the same dataset with Williams as the lead researcher getting different answers because they asked different questions. With the news cycle was so close for reports on both papers, you could find a headline to support your bias easily. Perhaps the most egregious headline was a clear distortion by Medical Daily: “The Sedentary Rejoice.”

A more serious criticism of these papers is that the information was self-reported, which can overstate or understate actual exercise. It appears that neither study controlled for diet, medications taken, or for family history of heart disease — all of which could affect the results along with exercise. In the big picture though, both studies showed positive effects for both walking and running, with similar risk reductions for CHD risk factors, and with BMI reductions for both. The message for both studies is that movement is beneficial, and individuals can benefit from either running or walking to improve health.

Click here to read the study in Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, click here to read the study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, click here to read more in The Guardian, click here to read more in Physician’s Briefing, and click here to read more in The Atlantic.

Confusing Street Signs image © Streetwise Cycle / WikiMedia

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