Public health messaging has typically focused on the volume of walking not the intensity. This study suggests for those with limited time, a faster pace could make a difference.
Getting in your steps has been a public health mantra for some time, but a study of 50,000 walkers says there should be more to the message: walking faster could add years to your life.
The findings, which appear in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, show that the faster the pace, the more the benefits accumulate. Compared with walking at a slow pace, walking at an average pace was associated with a 20% reduction in the risk of death from any cause, and walking fast boosted that risk reduction to 24%.
Similarly, walking at an average pace reduced the risk of death from cardiovascular (CV) death by 24%, compared with walking slowly, and reduced the risk of CV death by 21% when walking at a brisk pace.
Researchers defined a fast pace as 5 to 7 kilometers an hour, but lead author Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, of the University of Sydney, said in a statement, “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.”
The study involved 50,225 from 11 population-based surveys taken in England and Scotland from 1994 to 2008. The researchers compared walking pace and how that translated into whether the person had an event within 2 years of follow-up, after adjusting for total physical activity, age, sex, and body mass index (BMI).
Earlier population studies had shown lower mortality risk among people who walked frequently; there was speculation that walking may also be associated with reduced cancer risk, but none were found in this study.
However, the results showed that the benefits of walking appear to increase with age. Among those age 60 or older, average pace walkers experienced a 46% reduction in risk of death from CV causes. Fast-paced walkers saw a 53% reduction in risk of CV-related death.
“Walking pace is associated with all-cause mortality risk, but its specific role—independent from the total physical activity a person undertakes—has received little attention until now,” Stamatakis said. Sex and BMI did not appear to influence the outcomes, but the pace of walking significantly reduced all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease, he said.
The apparent protective effect of a faster walking pace has important implications for public health, the researchers note in their article. Walking is a “cornerstone,” of public health messaging, “but volume of walking (steps per day) has often been emphasized,” they noted. When walkers fail to meet targets, such as 10,000 steps a day, it’s usually due to lack of time.
“A pace change may be more feasible (for those with adequate physical capacity) than increased volume or duration,” the researchers conclude.
Stamatakis E, Kelly P, Strain T, Murtagh EM, Ding D, Murphy MH. Self-rated walking pace and all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality: individual participant pooled analysis of 50,225 walkers from 11 population British cohorts. Br J Sports Med 2018;52:761-768. doi:10:1136/bjsports-2017-098677.