When you walk for exercise, do you think about pace?
Growing evidence indicates that how fast you walk — not just how much or how often — plays a big role in the activity’s potential health benefits.
Our interest was sparked by an evidence review published earlier this year, whose results suggest that fast walking may lengthen your life and drop your risk for heart disease.
Before we get to the encouraging results of that investigation, let’s look at some earlier evidence that walking speed really matters to your health prospects.
2013 study found brisk walking about as good as running
Five years ago, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Life Sciences Division published two related studies — both of which found benefits from fast walking:
For their first study, the Lawrence Berkeley team examined data from The National Walkers’ Health Study — which involved 7,374 men and 31,607 women (Williams PT et al. PLoS One 2013).
The participants completed questionnaires designed to determine their exercise habits, height, body weight, waist circumference, diet, current and past cigarette use, and history of disease.
After comparing the participants' answers to their history of disease, the results linked brisk walking to reduced risks for death from any cause, cardiovascular diseases, ischemic heart disease, heart failure, hypertensive heart disease, diabetes, and dementia — results that held true even for people who engaged in exercises other than walking.
The Lawrence Berkeley team also examined data from The National Runners' and Walkers Health Study, which involved 33,060 runners and 15,945 walkers (Williams PT et al. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 2013.
They calculated the participants’ calorie-burning related to walking or running during a 6.2-year follow-up period — which varied according to pace and distance — and compared that to each participants’ health status regarding hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and coronary heart disease.
Surprisingly, fast walking matched or beat running for reducing the risks of hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and coronary heart disease (CHD) — although the conclusion regarding CHD lacked enough statistical power to be considered firm.
Specifically, they calculated these health-risk reductions for running versus walking:
However, the study’s lead author, Paul T. Williams, Ph.D., noted a key finding: “The more the runners ran and the walkers walked, the better off they were in health benefits. If the amount of energy expended was the same between the two groups, then the health benefits were comparable.”
2018 evidence review sees benefit from picking up your pace
Together, researchers from British and Australian universities examined data from 11 large-scale studies conducted in England and Scotland between 1994 and 2008, which collectively involved 50,225 participants.
The participants in all 11 studies reported the pace at which they walked, and that data was compared with the volunteers’ health records (Stamatakis E et al. 2018).
After adjusting the results to account for factors such as total exercise time, age, gender, and body mass index (BMI), the British-Australian analysis linked faster walking pace to lower risks for heart disease and death from any cause.
Compared with walking at a slow pace, walking at a moderate pace was linked to a 20% lower risk for death, while walking at a brisk or fast pace was linked to a 24% drop in the risk for death.
Similarly, walking at a moderate pace reduced the risk for heart disease by 24% compared with slow walking, while walking fast reduced the risk by 21%.
And the benefits of walking fast rose along with a study participant’s age. Compared with slow-walkers aged over 60 years, seniors who walked at a moderate pace showed a 46% reduction in risk of death from heart disease, while fast walkers enjoyed a 53% reduction.
Lead author Emmanuel Stamatakis, Ph.D., from the University of Sydney, added some detail: “A fast pace is generally five to six kilometers per hour [3.1 to 3 .7 mph], but it really depends on a walker’s fitness levels; an alternative indicator is to walk at a pace that makes you slightly out of breath or sweaty when sustained.”
And as Stamatakis said, “Assuming our results reflect cause and effect, these analyses suggest that increasing walking pace may be a straightforward way for people to improve heart health and risk for premature mortality.”
Faster walking may help avoid hospitalization and get you out faster
A paper presented earlier this year at the European Society of Cardiology’s EuroPrevent conference provides more evidence in favor of fast walking.
The study’s authors reported that faster-walking cardiovascular disease patients underwent fewer and shorter hospitalizations, versus their slower-walking or inactive counterparts (Merlo C et al. 2018).
The three-year study was conducted by researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine, the U.S. Veterans Administration, and various Italian universities.
It involved 1,078 patients with high blood pressure, of whom 85% suffered from coronary heart disease and 15% had a heart valve disease.
Rather than relying on participants’ self-reports about their typical walking pace, the researchers had the patients walk on a treadmill at what each participant perceived as an intermediate pace.
The participants were then grouped based on their actual walking pace:
As it happened, comparable numbers of patients fell into each of the three walking-speed groups.
The international research team then followed the patients for three years, recording hospitalizations due to any cause as well as the length of their stays.
Co-author Dr. Carlotta Merlo of Italy’s University of Ferrara characterized the results this way: “The faster the walking speed, the lower the risk of hospitalization and the shorter the length of hospital stay. Since reduced walking speed is a marker of limited mobility, which has been linked to decreased physical activity, we assume that fast walkers in the study are also fast walkers in real life.”
These were the percentages of people in each group who were hospitalized at least once, with fast walkers winning that contest:
The average length of their hospital stays also varied, with fast walkers averaging the least hospital time:
Further, the U.S.-Italian team concluded that for each 0.5 miles per hour faster a patient walked, their likelihood of being hospitalized dropped by nearly 20%.
Dr. Merlo made this important point: “Walking is the most popular type of exercise in adults. It is free, does not require special training, and can be done almost anywhere. Even short, but regular, walks have substantial health benefits. Our study shows that the benefits are even greater when the pace of walking is increased.”
Slow walking may predict heart problems later
While brisk walking seems to greatly benefit basic health, slow walking may worsen it.
In fact, judging by the results of a British study published last year, walking pace in middle age may be a powerful indicator of future cardio problems and cancer (Yates T et al. 2017).
Scientists from the Leicester Biomedical Research Centre analyzed data collected from 420,727 people between 2006 and 2010, all of whom were free from heart disease and cancer.
The team then tracked the number of adults who died from either heart disease or cancer during the six-plus years after the start of the study.
As lead researcher Tom Yates, Ph.D., of the University of Leicester said, “Our study was interested in the links between whether someone said they walked at a slow, steady or brisk pace and whether that could predict their risk of dying from heart disease or cancer in the future.
And the surprising, disturbing results indicated that middle-aged adults who walk slowly may be at a higher risk of heart disease later in life, compared to the general population.
Prof. Yates put it this way: “Slow walkers were around twice as likely to have a heart-related death compared to brisk walkers. This finding was seen in both men and women and was not explained by related risk factors such as smoking, body mass index, diet or how much television the participants in the sample watched. This suggests habitual walking pace is an independent predictor of heart-related death.”
Of course, walking slowly may indicate a generally less active lifestyle, and generally unhealthful habits.
Clearly, one of the simplest things we can do to protect our health — and possibly lengthen our lives — is to walk frequently and pick up the pace when we do!