There is a good chance you’ve tried incline-walking or running at some point in your life. Both are classic forms of aerobic exercise that are very easy to do and can be pursued outdoors or in the gym.
They’re also excellent workouts that can help you lose weight, avoid cardiovascular diseases, and improve your cardio fitness, precisely your lung function and cardiac output.
But which one is better for you? If you’re looking to incorporate more cardio into your life, the choice isn’t easy. Both incline-walking and running offer significant health benefits, but one’s got to come out as a winner.
Some factors can help you make up your mind, depending on your experience level, fitness goals, and schedule. We’re here to point them out, so continue reading as we explain everything about incline walking vs. running.
Incline Walking vs. Running on a Flat Surface: Full Comparison
A common misconception about the number of calories burned in an exercise is that the distance determines it.
Many people believe that if you cover the same distance, the calories you burn are the same; it doesn’t matter if you’re running, jogging, downhill walking, or walking up a hill. Of course, though widely believed, that’s not true; neither is it based on science.
Scientific data shows that the number of calories a person burns depends on the amount of energy they exert in the activity, so things like “speed” and “intensity” are more related to calorie burn than “distance.”
According to David Swain, who has a Ph.D. in physiology and whose research focus is on cardiovascular and metabolic responses to exercise, you burn 5 calories for every liter of oxygen you use.
Since running makes you consume more oxygen, it helps you burn more calories than walking and incline walking. Let’s see how in detail.
Walking on a treadmill at an incline doesn’t burn as many calories as running, but it’s still more effective than walking on a flat surface. So if you’re not into the wheezing that comes with running or just prefer less exhausting activities, incline walking is a great way to lose weight.
According to research published by Wisconsin’s Department of Health and Family Services, this is the average number of calories you burn per one hour of incline walking, depending on your starting body weight:
- 130-pound person: 354 calories
- 155-pound person: 422 calories
- 190-pound person: 518 calories
Of course, you burn more calories when you increase the incline.
As stated in the “Discovery Health” newsletter, a 150-pound person walking on a flat treadmill at a speed of 2 mph for an hour burns 170 calories. The same person burns 258 calories during the same period walking on a 5-percent incline and 345 calories on a 10-percent incline. A full incline helps this person shed 448 calories in an hour.
Running burns more calories than incline walking. A general estimate is that an individual burns 80 to 160 calories per mile. Yet, the exact number of calories you burn by running depends on your age, gender, speed, and most important of all, your starting body weight.
The American Council on Exercise states that a 120-pound person burns 114 calories by running a 10-mile run, while a 180-pound person burns 170 calories running the same distance at the same pace.
Other numbers to give you a better estimate of your calorie burn while running at a speed of 6 mph are:
- A 130-pound person: 607 calories per hour
- A 150-pound person: 700 calories per hour
- A 180-pound person: 840 calories per hour
- A 200-pound person: 933 calories per hour
When it comes to muscle activation, incline walking comes as the winner as it involves more muscles of your body in the workout. Although running is more weight-bearing, walking on an incline provides more resistance training in addition to its fat-burning capabilities.
During an incline walk, you don’t only activate all the major muscle groups in your lower body but also your core, back, and upper body muscles.
Sure, your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes do most of the work. However, because incline walking requires a great amount of balance, your core gets activated as much.
Not to mention, your arm swings, as well as the torso twists you do to propel yourself against gravity, also engage your internal and external obliques.
In general, the higher the incline you walk on, the more your core and upper body muscles exert energy to keep your body stable. And it won’t be a long time before you notice more toned muscles in your legs and stomach.
Running, on the other hand, switches on the hip flexors, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles, all of which are in your lower body. And although running activates the core muscles to a certain extent, it doesn’t do that as much as incline walking as your body isn’t working against gravity here.
So what does the data mentioned above mean in terms of weight loss? For a person to lose one pound of fat, they need to burn 3,500 calories more than they consume. Theoretically, that makes running a more efficient way to lose weight.
A person weighing 130 pounds who walks up hills 4 hours a week can lose from 1.5 to 2 pounds per month. The same person can burn more than 3 pounds in the same span of time by running 4 hours a week.
Yet, some factors make incline walking more beneficial for sustainable weight loss, the first of which is the muscle-building capability of this activity.
Walking uphill maximizes muscle growth, even more than running. Because muscles are more metabolically active than fat, the more muscles you have, the more fat you burn. So in the long term, incline walking can be more beneficial for weight loss than running.
Another factor to bear in mind is that it’s easier to complete a 30-minute walk uphill than a 30-minute run.
That’s because walking, even on an incline, is less demanding on the lungs and less fatiguing all around, which allows you to go longer during the exercise and keep active throughout the rest of the day.
Taking everything into consideration, incline walking or a routine that has a mix of both activities can be more suitable for your long-term fat-burning goal.
Just because running can help you burn more calories doesn’t mean it’s the better option for you. Your choice should be based on your fitness and experience level.
If you’re a beginner, it’d be better to start with incline walking as it’s easier on the body. Running can take a toll on your body if you’re not fit enough, and it’ll be hard to go for more than a 10 to 15-minute run, so your overall workout time won’t be sufficient.
That’s why it’s wiser to start with walking on an incline until you build your stamina and endurance, after which you can switch to running and up your fitness game.
Risk of Injury
Both walking and running are great for your cardiovascular health, and both activities can be done at different intensity levels according to your fitness level. However, the risk of injury that comes with each of them is different.
In general, incline walking is much safer than running, as it’s less weight-bearing. On the other hand, running has a much harsher impact on the knees and hips.
When you run, every time your foot touches the ground, you force your whole body weight on your joints, and due to the force of the impact, this weight can even be multiplied.
On the contrary, when you walk on an incline, you land more lightly, and there is always one foot stabilizing your body on the ground, so it’s generally easier on your joints.
Therefore, for people with knee or hip problems, an incline walk is much better than a run, yet it can aggravate back pain if you have any.
In all cases, make sure to talk to your personal trainer and take their advice about which workout is better for you.
Incline Walking vs. Running: Pros and Cons
- Targets the core and upper body as well as the lower body
- Conditions the body for realistic terrain
- Better for sustainable weight loss
- Suitable for beginners and helps build endurance for new runners
- Doesn’t stress the joints
- Burns fewer calories than running
- Can exacerbate back pain
- One of the best exercises for weight loss
- Improves cardiovascular health and lung capacity
- Strengthens the lower body
- Provides a challenge for professional athletes
- Can cause joint-overuse injuries and exacerbate knee problems
- Doesn’t activate core muscles as much as incline walking
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, there is no definite answer to whether incline walking or running is better. Both activities have their advantages and disadvantages.
At Stay in Fitness, we’d recommend adding both exercises to your workout routine, as long as no injury or medical reason is stopping you. After all, varying your routine can be way more beneficial than sticking to the same exercise; you don’t want your body to get used to the same workout by doing it repeatedly.
Emma James, 29 years old professional fitness trainer with Bachelor’s degree in Physical Fitness Technician from Boston University.