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Are humans designed to walk and not run?

26 October, 2018

With over 1,000 CommBank staff walking in next week’s Can4Cancer walk in Sydney on Tuesday 30 October, CBHS encourages all walkers, members, staff, families and friends to reduce the impact of cancer by leading a cancer-smart lifestyle. This article discusses the benefits of walking versus running. 

Are humans designed to walk and not run?

For seven million years, humans have been walking. As James Levine, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Minnesota said, “Humans were designed to walk”. But all of a sudden, we’re sitting.

The sedentary pastime of today’s community is worrying. The amount of time we spend sitting down is having an adverse effect on our health and contributing towards many diseases which could otherwise be preventable. And to make up for the amount of time we are sitting, we’re pushing ourselves harder than ever in the gym and on the track. Unfortunately, these two habits don’t necessarily result in an overall healthy lifestyle.

According to JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard University, walking is the equivalent of popping a series of magic pills that can help keep you in good health. A daily walk has been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and diabetes. Brisk walking can reduce the risk of further disorders, lowering the effects of everything from sexual dysfunction to cognitive decline.

In the big picture, walking takes very little effort. It requires no gym membership, no Lycra, no yoga mat, and no personal trainer. It costs nothing to participate in, and can be performed at any time.

Walking is low-impact, making it kinder on the joints than other forms of exercise, yet the benefits are countless. You’ll work the same muscles as you do running (hamstring, quadriceps, iliopsoas, calf and gluteus maximus), but the risk of wear and tear on the cartilage surrounding your joints is greatly reduced.

Running, on the other hand, can put a lot of pressure on your body.

Should you walk or run?

The debate around the mechanics of running has been a hot topic of late. Some experts argue that humans are simply not meant to run, while others believe that humans have evolved to run over great distances.


In studies of trained athletes, in which researchers set out to see how humans move, no matter which way a runner landed on their feet (heels, middle, ball, toes), running wasn’t fuel efficient. Efficiency in human movement is important, just as it is in the transport world. The more fuel efficient a car, the further it can travel - and the same applies to a person. An efficient human machine needs less energy to cover the same number of kilometres as an inefficient one.
So does that mean that you can’t burn fat by walking instead of running? Not at all.

According to Lucy Knight, author of Walking for Weight Loss, there is plenty of health gain to come from walking, and this includes fat-loss. While dawdling along doing some window shopping will likely not help, a good power walking session will most certainly burn some calories. The trick is to stand tall with your arms by your sides, and pull your navel towards your spine so that you’re working your core muscles. Your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle, and your hands slightly cupped. As you focus your eyes ahead, transfer your weight back and forth through your heels.

In the other camp is the research into human evolvement and the idea that humans are now capable of running long-distance marathons. Sure, it can be done, but at what cost? Long distance running puts a great deal of pressure on the body and, if we push ourselves too far, there can be consequences.

For example, consider swimming. Most anthropologists will agree that we haven’t evolved to be swimmers. We’ve adapted to water and learnt how to swim through it (quite effectively for a land mammal), but by no means does it come naturally to us. Push yourself too far and you risk drowning. Running works in the same way, walking does not. Run far and you could hurt yourself. Walk far and you’ve done exactly what your body is designed to do.

Given the great distances hunter-gatherers would have travelled, it’s highly unlikely that they ever would have run (aside from when being chased). And because of our ancestors’ efficient way of walking, today’s humans have retained a foot posture that indicates how we should be walking. This foot posture teaches us to walk heel-first, something we don’t do when running.

Getting back to the basics of walking


Burning fat and staying healthy doesn’t have to always mean high intensity training. There’s a lot to be said for general fitness, and that can come from regular walking and low intensity workouts. Don’t feel like hitting the track or gym? No problem. Train yourself like our ancestors used to by getting off the couch and start walking. It’s in your DNA makeup.

If you want to increase on your general fitness, throw in short bursts of interval training (as if you were being chased).

Benefits of low-level aerobic work include:

  • Increases capillary network (the blood vessels that supply the muscle cells with fuel and oxygen);
  • Increases muscle mitochondria (the powerhouses of your cells);
  • Increases production of fat-burning and fat-transporting enzymes;
  • More fun and achievable; and 
  • You can often work with a partner and converse as you go.

Benefits of interval training include:

  • Increases muscle fibre strength;
  • Increases aerobic capacity;
  • Extends on muscle mitochondria;
  • Increases insulin sensitivity; and
  • Increases natural growth hormone production.

What effect can walking have on your general wellbeing?

When you maintain general fitness, you take care of yourself in many ways. Regular walking can act as a great bone strengthener to prevent osteoporosis, and the cardiovascular benefits from walking make it an ideal activity for protecting against heart disease. Walking can lower cholesterol, prevent peripheral artery disease (which causes 1 in 5 older people to suffer leg pain), and protect against colds. Walking can also increase oxygen supply and blood flow to the brain, helping it to stay alert and work more efficiently.

Studies also show that by walking, you can reduce your risk of developing dementia by half!

All in all, a daily walk can be amazing for your wellbeing.

This Tuesday will be the final Can4Cancer walk in Sydney and we're only just past halfway to the fundraising goal so we need your help!

We'd really appreciate your generous support in this great cause with a donation on our page; donate today.

Any support can help change a life.

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Don’t forget to follow our Can4Cancer progress on our facebook page for updates.

Thank you for supporting this important cause.

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