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Want to Live Longer? Walk Faster, Says Science

MIKE MCRAE
1 JUN 2018

If you want to add a few more years to your life, you might want to try picking up the pace.

That's the advice of Australian researchers who found that our walking speed could predict our risk of dying at an earlier age from not just cardiovascular disease, but a wide variety of health conditions.

 

Exercising in the name of improve future health prospects isn't new advice, with health experts recommending something like half an hour of decent physical activity each day.

This seems like a crystal clear message at first, but knowing precisely what counts as a good level of exercise is something of a grey zone. Does the walk to the photocopier and back count or not?

"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," says Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre and School of Public Health.

A study led by the University of Sydney in Australia now provides some much needed numbers that show there's a significant difference between a quiet stroll to the bus stop and a brisk saunter around the block.

To find where healthy activity begins, the researchers pooled the responses of more than 50,000 people to 11 surveys conducted in England and Scotland between 1994 and 2008.

Since the records were linked to mortality records, the team was able to look for relationships between walking speed and overall death rates, deaths from cancer, and deaths from cardiovascular disease.

 

The good news is an average pace reduces your chances of going to an early grave by 20 percent, compared with the slow strollers, after accounting for other risk factors.

When it comes to cardiovascular disease, walking at an average or faster pace will lower your chances of dying from something like congestive heart failure or a stroke by nearly a quarter.

If you're not sure how fast to swing those feet, think less about setting a world record and more about your personal best.

"A fast pace is generally five to seven kilometres (3 to 4.5 miles) per hour, but it really depends on a walker's fitness levels," says Stamatakis.

"An alternative indicator is to walk at a pace that makes you slightly out of breath or sweaty when sustained."

The benefits pile over the age of 60, with a 46 percent decrease in risk of dying from cardiovascular disease for the average mover, and a 53 percent for the fast pacer.

Interestingly, there was no indication that walking speed made a difference when it came to cancer, though the researchers suggested it could be a whole different story if they focussed in on specific conditions.

 

We should keep in mind that the survey responses were self-reported, so rely on an honest communication of exercise.

There's also the question of whether the numbers show a faster pace walk helping improve general health, or whether generally healthy people enjoy moving quickly.

"Separating the effect of one specific aspect of physical activity and understanding its potentially causal association with risk of premature death is complex," says Stamatakis.

Before you turn your daily coffee trip into a powerwalk, keep in mind that this study talks about relative risk. Your absolute risk of any of those diseases is only going to go up or down a few percentage points, depending on whether you shuffle or walk quickly. 

But even with such caveats in mind, studies such as these are a great reminder of the benefits of frequent exercise that gets your heart pumping.

This research was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.