While people love running for many reasons, the question remains: Does pushing yourself to run at a fast pace benefit you more than walking the same distance at a slower pace?
A large study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise examined the differences of vigorous and moderate activity on two areas of health: hypertension and depressive symptoms.
The study ran over a 12-year period and tracked more than 11,000 women born between 1946 and 1951. Participants logged both their moderate activity, such as recreational swimming, golf and gardening, as well as vigorous activities such as running.
The researchers also controlled for the amount of time women were active to make sure they considered only the difference between vigorous and moderate activity on health, rather than the total time exercising. To do so, they compared women with similar total energy output during a typical week.
To calculate the women’s activity level, researchers used MET (or “metabolic equivalent”) minutes, a system that compares energy expenditure in different activities. While sitting has a MET value of 1 per minute, walking at a good pace ranks at a 3 and running 10-minute miles scores a 10. So, if you took four, 30-minute walks in a week, your MET minutes would be 360 (that is, 30 x 3 for each walk). Most health guidelines suggest adults have a minimum of 500 to 1,000 MET minutes weekly.
In the study, the active women had a much lower incidence of hypertension and depressive symptoms than sedentary women. However—and more surprisingly—women who included vigorous activity in their totals had only slightly better health outcomes than those who did only moderate activity to produce the same number of METs. It was only in the group of women who scored more than 2,000 MET minutes per week that the benefit of vigorous activity over moderate activity was statistically significant.
To put that last number into context, 2,000 MET minutes is the equivalent of running 20 miles per week at a 10:00 pace. According to this study, if this is your typical week, then you are at a slightly smaller risk for hypertension and depressive symptoms than someone who works out an equivalent volume but at a moderate level.