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The faster you walk, the longer you may live

It’s a known fact that walking can help to protect our health and prolong our lives.

Walking for as little as 2 hours per week brings down the risk of all-cause mortality.

This activity has also been linked with enhanced cognitive abilities and better psychological well-being.

But while most studies have only looked at the impact that walking as an activity can have on various aspects of health, or focused on how much time you should spend walking in order to enjoy the benefits, not much attention has been paid to how walking speed can impact long-term outcomes.

This is exactly what scientists from five institutions across two continents set out to explore. These institutions include the University of Sydney in Australia, the University of Limerick in Ireland, and the Universities of the Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Ulster, all in the United Kingdom.

Lead researcher Prof. Emmanuel Stamatakis — from the University of Sydney — and team explored the links between walking speed and mortality due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all causes.

“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,” explains Prof. Stamatakis.

The team’s findings are now published in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Walk for your life

The team analyzed 11 population-based surveys conducted in the U.K. in 1994–2008, gathering data on 50,225 walkers.

From the surveys, Prof. Stamatakis and colleagues collected information on the participants’ self-reported walking pace, which was characterzied as “slow,” “average,” or “brisk” (fast).

“A fast pace,” notes Prof. Stamatakis, “is generally 5 to 7 kilometres per hour, 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.”

In order to understand how walking speed relates to the risk of mortality, these data were linked to mortality records. The scientists adjusted their analysis to take into account possible influencing factors, such as age, sex, body mass index (BMI), and general physical activity habits.

Prof. Stamatakis and team’s analysis revealed that, while an “average” walking pace was linked with a 20 percent lower risk of mortality from all causes, walking at a “fast” pace was tied to a 24 percent lower risk.

When it came to specific life-shortening causes such as cardiovascular disease, the team found that brisk walkers has a 21 percent lower risk of associated mortality. For individuals walking at an average pace, this risk was reduced by 24 percent.

At the same time, Prof. Stamatakis goes on to explain, “While sex and body mass index did not appear to influence outcomes, walking at an average or fast pace was associated with a significantly reduced risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease.”

But, he adds, “There was no evidence to suggest pace had a significant influence on cancer mortality however.”

Older people may reap stronger benefits

The researchers also noticed that older individuals, in particular, seemed to reap more benefits from walking at a brisker pace.

Participants aged 60 or over had a 46 percent lower risk of death related to cardiovascular diseases if they walked at an average pace, and a 53 percent lower risk if they walked fast.

These findings, say Prof. Stamatakis and colleagues, should be ground enough for public health messages to mention the importance not just of walking, but also of walking pace.

“Especially in situations when walking more isn’t possible due to time pressures or a less walking-friendly environment,” Prof. Stamatakis goes on, “walking faster may be a good option to get the heart rate up — one that most people can easily incorporate into their lives.”

Still, the investigators admit that establishing cause and effect relationships in this context may prove complicated.

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

Nevertheless, he says, “Assuming [the] 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 — providing a simple message for public health campaigns to promote.”

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