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Incline walking vs running: What’s the best for your heart?

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Incline walking might be a good substitute for running for people who are at risk of injury from the latter.

What exercise is better for your? Walking or running?

A growing body of evidence is showing that vigorous physical activity holds much greater health benefits than moderate level activity. The problem with this is that the people who are most in need of these types of improvements (e.g. the older population) are often not able to do vigorous physical activity due to other health issues e.g. lower back pain or arthritic knees … or are they?

What pops into your head when you hear the words vigorous physical activity? Army training, spinning, running, or boot camp? Activities that we traditionally class as vigorous, e.g. running, put a lot of strain on the lower limbs and may therefore not be ideal if you have other injuries.

But what about walking? Do you think that walking can be classed as vigorous physical activity?

A study conducted by researchers from the University of Norfolk has shown that our definition of what constitutes vigorous activity may be a bit warped.  It may indeed be possible to do vigorous activity without placing high loads on the joints in the lower limbs.

Research into walking, incline walking, and running

The researchers did a study where they compared three activities:

  • Horizontal walking on a treadmill

  • Incline walking (11%) on a treadmill

  • Horizontal running on a treadmill

They worked out the intensity of each activity by calculating how much oxygen participants used during the activities. Then they set the speed for it so that the incline walking’s intensity was equal to that of the horizontal running. Both of these activities were 3 times more intense than the horizontal walking.

By doing this, the incline walking qualified as vigorous activity. They then measured all the forces that went through the lower limbs of the participants and their results were very interesting.

Incline walking vs running - Results

They found that the peak force as well as the rate of loading were significantly higher during running than during both walking conditions (this as expected). Interestingly, they found that the rate of loading during uphill walking was also lower than during horizontal walking.

Looking at the total force during each activity, the researchers found that the participants experienced a 79% increase when running compared to walking uphill.

What this means

Uphill walking may thus be a safe (low orthopaedic load) alternative to get your dose of vigorous exercise from. I say low orthopaedic load because while walking puts less strain on your legs, it still puts a high strain on your cardiovascular (heart and lungs) system.

You should consult your doctor or physiotherapist if you plan to take up vigorous exercise for the first time. The high intensity exercise may increase your risk for heart attacks or strokes.

The researchers point out that for people who are not used to vigorous physical activity, the risk of having a heart attack etc. goes up 105-fold. In contrast, people who are used to vigorous activity only experience a 2.4-fold increased risk.

Basically, what the research is showing is that vigorous activity is safe as long as you train responsibly. Gradually increase your fitness to the point where the body is able to cope with it. It is important to consult a professional if you feel uncertain. If you suffer with a specific condition e.g. high blood pressure, make sure that the person you consult is qualified to deal with different health conditions.

Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ReasearchGate.


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