You know walking is good for you—no, great for you. Taking a walk is a pleasant, easy, no-cost way to exercise, and it produces a bounty of well-known health benefits—from helping with weight loss to reducing stress to keeping your memory sharp and your heart healthy.
It can even help you avoid premature death—but only if you move at more than a saunter, especially as you get older, new research reveals.
The good news: While you can’t just piddle along and expect walking to do all its magic, you don’t have to be a speed walker like Cary Grant in Walk Don’t Run to get these long-life benefits.
The Speed of Longevity
It makes logical sense that regularly walking at a brisk clip might reduce your risk of early mortality. After all, the faster heart rate from that fast clip strengthens your cardiovascular system and stimulates health-improving physiological responses throughout your body. But while the overall benefits of exercise are well-documented, the role of walking speed hadn’t been well-studied. In fact, the new research is the first study of its kind because it teased out walking speed’s impact from the rest of someone’s physical activity.
Scientists at the Universities of Sydney, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Limerick and Ulster examined results from the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey, two ongoing population-based studies that have tracked more than 50,000 men and women, age 30 and up, for an average of nine years. Their goal was to measure the influence of walking speeds against mortality from all causes as well as from cardiovascular disease and cancer. The participants reported their walking speeds—slow, average or brisk/fast. They reported how much walking in particular—and physical exercise in general—they engaged in on a regular basis.
Surprising results: Average walking speed, meaning just under three miles per hour (mph), was statistically linked to nearly the same health benefits as brisk/fast walking (3.5 or 4 mph). And compared with slow walkers (around 2 mph), average-speed walkers had a 20% reduced risk of dying over those nine years. For brisk/fast walkers, the mortality risk reduction was only slightly greater: 24%. (Walking pace reduced mortality primarily by helping to prevent cardiovascular disease—there was no statistical benefit in terms of cancer prevention.)
But something much more powerful was discovered as well: The benefit of walking at an average pace—what fitness experts like to call “moderate intensity”—may get much greater as you age. For study subjects age 60 and older, walking at an average pace or faster was associated with a 46% lower rate of cardiovascular disease mortality compared with slow walkers. And brisk/fast-paced older walkers got the proverbial gold ring—a 53% reduction in cardiovascular mortality.
Now, this kind of observational study can’t establish causality, so it doesn’t prove that intentionally keeping up the pace in your walking style will help you avoid chronic illness or an early demise. Researchers noted the many cardiovascular benefits of walking at an average/moderate rate or faster—but they also acknowledged that some of the statistical differences in longevity between slow and average or brisk/fast walkers may come from the fact that people in declining health tend to walk slower.
In practical terms, however, the message is clear: If you can walk at a moderate pace or faster, do it! Strolling can be relaxing, but it isn’t likely to do as much for your health.
How Can You Tell If Your Pace Is Fast Enough?
To get the greatest potential life-extension benefits from walking, you want to make sure you walk fast enough. An easy way to tell: Count the number of steps you take. Recent research suggests that you should aim for 100 steps a minute—a brisk pace that’s easy to determine. For people with an average stride length, that pace will work out to just under three miles per hour—the “average pace” chronicled in this study.
Use your watch or a stopwatch on your phone to count how many steps you take in 10 seconds and multiply that by six, or simply count your steps for a full minute. Tip: It’s about the same as the pace of the hit 1970s disco song “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees—one step per beat. Get your pace set, and then head out for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity walking at least five days a week—as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention—confident that you’re taking a big step towards better health and longer life.
Want to aim for a brisk pace? That’s 120 to 130 steps per minute. If you can, go for it!