Brisk Walking Linked to Remarkably Longer Life, Regardless of Weight
Brisk walking is well established as a viable form of moderate physical activity, a threshold not difficult to achieve yet known to improve physical health and mental well-being and up the odds of a longer life. A new study provides one of the most dramatic links yet between walking and longevity. But you’ll want to pick up the pace.
Researchers looked at data across seven years on 474,919 people in the UK, during which time 12,823 of them died. The subjects had defined their own walking pace as slow, steady/average or brisk.
No surprise, the brisk walkers had longer life expectancies, on average. But the number of extra years is dramatic. And most interesting: Brisk walking was linked to more time on this planet regardless of weight — including not just overweight people but also the obese, as measured by body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage and waist size.
“Fast walkers have a long life expectancy across all categories of obesity status, regardless of how obesity status is measured,” says the study’s lead author, Tom Yates, a professor in physical activity, sedentary behavior and health at the University of Leicester. “This allows us to have more confidence in the results than if we only looked at a single measure.”
What’s it Mean?
The results suggest physical fitness may be a better indicator of life expectancy than BMI, Yates and his colleagues conclude in a May 15 paper the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
There are limitations to the study. The observational results establish a link, but not cause-and-effect, Yates points out. As one example, habitual brisk walking makes people healthier, but naturally healthier people may be more liable to walk faster. And walking pace was self-reported, not measured. Self-reporting is known to be less than totally accurate, and each person may view “slow” vs. “fast” differently.
“Nonetheless, whilst there are likely to be multiple factors contributing to the strength of our findings, it is well established that increasing your fitness is one of the best things you can do for your health,” Yates tells me. “Increasing your walking pace in everyday life is a good way to increase fitness levels, particularly in those who are slow walkers.”
Another interesting result from the study: Being underweight, in addition to walking slowly, is linked to shorter lives.
“This finding is in contrast to an assumption that is often made that obesity confers the most risk,” Yates explains. “In fact, many other studies have also reported an elevated risk of mortality in those who are underweight, although ours is the first to investigate this in relation to walking pace. Combining slow walkers (a measure of low functional status and poor resilience) with a low BMI (a measure of poor nutritional status) seems particularly harmful as it is likely to reflect a phenotype that is frail, poorly nourished, and has a greatly compromised ability to respond to physiological challenges” such as illness or injury.
The Consensus Advice
U.S. federal guidelines for adults suggest 2.5 hours weekly of moderate exercise, which can include brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. More is better, the experts say, and a person should include muscle-strengthening exercises, too, the guidelines advise.
That recommended level of moderate physical activity improves blood pressure and cholesterol levels, increases energy and stamina, and improves mood, mental well-being, sleep and cognitive abilities, according to the American Heart Association.
Less activity can be beneficial, too. A study earlier this year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that moderately intense activities such as brisk walks, gardening or dancing for just 10 to 59 minutes per week was linked to an 18 percent lower risk of death from any cause, compared to inactive people. Likewise, a walk in nature has clear health benefits. Any such physical activity may make you happier, too.
Other research illustrates that useful physical activity does not have to be particularly difficult, and it’s never too late to start and still see a range of benefits from better health to longer life.
So what’s a brisk pace?
For people ages 21 to 40, walking about 100 steps per minute achieves the moderate-intensity exercise threshold, according to research published in January in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Counting may not be necessary. About 80 percent of the study participants naturally walked at a cadence of about 110 steps per minute, says study team member Elroy Aguiar.
Moderate physical activity can also be measured as the place between “conversation is easy” and “you can hear your breathing but you’re not out of breath,” based on the Borg Scale, a common gauge used by scientists.
Combined, the research on walking make an ever-stronger case for ditching the car and hoofing it to work, or simply scheduling an evening stroll around the neighborhood. Just don’t take it too slow.
“People should be conscious of their walking pace, and slow walkers should try and walk faster,” Yates says.