Researchers say a quick walking pace is a good cardiovascular workout, but it may also be an indicator of a person’s overall health.
Taking a brisk walk could increase your odds of living longer, and it doesn’t matter how much you weigh when you slip on your walking shoes, a new study suggests.
People who have a quicker walking pace lived longer than those who walked more slowly, according to researchers who monitored the walking habits and deaths of nearly 475,000 people, most of whom were in their 50s at the start of the study.
“Brisk walking” was defined by researchers as walking at least 3 miles per hour, or 100 steps a minute.
However, walking pace was self-reported by participants, who were asked to indicate whether they walked at a “slow pace,” “steady/average pace,” or “brisk pace.”
Participants with brisk walking paces had longer life expectancies across all categories of BMI, according to the study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
“The survival is the same for fast walkers for a wide range of body mass index, from 20 to 40,” Dr. Francesco Zaccardi, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and the study’s lead researcher, told Healthline.
“This result indicates that physical function is a stronger determinant of longevity than body mass index, and also people with high body mass index but with a good fitness may survive longer,” he said.
Conversely, participants with slower walking paces had shorter life expectancies across all categories of BMI.
Researchers reported that women who walked more quickly had a life span of about 87 years compared to 72 years for women who walked slowly.
Men who walked quickly had a life span of about 86 years compared to 65 years for men who walked more slowly.
That’s a 15-year average difference for women and a 20-year average difference for men.
“What this tells me is if you’re walking faster you’re doing a very low-intensity form of cardio, and if done on a regular basis, it will strengthen and condition your heart. So, whether you’re overweight or in shape, fast walking does have positive physical effects on your body and life expectancy,” Jamie Hickey, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist at Truism Fitness, told Healthline.
The findings add to evidence suggesting that cardiovascular fitness can provide some protection against the health risks posed by having excess weight or obesity.
“These findings are… consistent with other studies showing that brisk walking can cut the risk of cardiovascular events,” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Health, told Healthline.
Goldberg notes that while many people work toward the goal of getting 10,000 steps per day, that metric says nothing about speed.
People who are fit enough to walk that many steps at a moderate pace should try to pick up the pace, she says.
But those who are sedentary are better off doing any type of walking, even at a slow pace, stresses Goldberg.
How much time you spend walking also shouldn’t be disregarded, she adds.
“It’s not just the intensity but the duration that counts,” Goldberg said.
Zaccardi adds that the connection between fast walking and longevity may not be entirely due to physiological health.
“Walking behavior… can also be an indicator of the converging effect of multiple factors, including nonphysical (i.e., psychological), which are themselves also related to a longer survival,” he said.
Interestingly, the study found that the group with the lowest life expectancy wasn’t the heaviest participants, but rather men and women with BMIs of less than 20 kg/m2 — on the low end of normal weight.
This population, however, also benefitted from faster walking.
“It isn’t surprising that being a brisk walker is associated with longevity, as brisk walking is a clear indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness, as well as freedom from illnesses and degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis,” Dr. Clare Morrison, medical advisor at the U.K.-based online pharmacy MedExpress, told Healthline.
“What’s more of a puzzle is why it should be even more beneficial for those who are very thin,” she said. “This probably represents the fact that some very thin individuals are suffering from extreme frailty and poor nutritional status, whereas others are just naturally lean and fit.”
Zaccardi says the study didn’t delve into specific causes of death, such as cardiovascular disease.
“It is likely that a good physical function reduces mainly the risk of cardiovascular death, but this should be specifically addressed in future studies with a longer follow-up,” he said.
“To me, this isn’t a study we should approach with a ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ types of conversation,” Nick Rizzo, training director at RunRepeat.com, told Healthline.
“We already know that exercising at a higher intensity will typically yield a greater result to some extent. If you apply this concept to how you walk your entire life, then you are going to benefit more from your time spent walking than someone who walks slower than you and walks the same amount,” he said.
“At the same time, if you are someone who is generally healthy, your body is going to be able to operate more efficiently, you will have more energy yourself, and it can possibly lead to you naturally taking a faster walking pace.
“There are no golden rules in life, but moving more and moving at a higher intensity are always going to produce [better results]. So picking up the pace no matter where you are off to can definitely help you live longer, especially when you are making healthy decisions in your life overall,” Rizzo said.
Walking is typically viewed as less intense (and therefore less beneficial) than jogging or running, but that’s not necessarily true, experts say.
“If you walk fast enough, you can even get into your cardio zone,” Liz Jeneault, a fitness expert, social media influencer, and vice president of marketing for Faveable.com, told Healthline.
“I’m a fitness expert who already works out a lot, but I also often speed-walk as I live in a large city and rarely use my vehicle. I love it as an extra tool to help me keep my weight consistent,” she said.
Jeneault says that brisk walking on hills can make the workout even more effective.
“There’s nothing better than speed-walking on an incline,” she said. “You get to burn calories while also building your leg and booty muscles.”
Handgrip strength was also studied for its relationship to longevity by Zaccardi and colleagues.
“Smaller, less consistent differences in life expectancy were observed between participants with high and low handgrip strength, particularly in women,” according to the study.