Readers of this website know that I’m a huge advocate of a daily walk for both mental and physical health. While slower walking is fine – it’s much better to do something than nothing – there’s some fascinating research out there that might just make you want to pick up the pace.
First let’s dig into some past research reported here, which found a link between an older person’s walking pace and their life expectancy. . .
One study,1 published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that average-speed walkers had a roughly 20 percent lower risk of dying from all causes. Getting more specific, these walkers also had a similar decrease in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
But the researchers also found that picking up the pace and walking at a brisk three to four miles an hour reduced the risk of dying during the study by about 24 percent.
For someone who doesn’t suffer from an impairment of some kind, three or four miles an hour is not too hard to do, and worth it for the extra health benefits.
The researchers reached these conclusions by tracking the health and walking habits of more than 50,000 people over a 14-year period. So the results are pretty solid.
“The main takeaway message is that stepping up the pace may be a good hack to make walking more health-enhancing,” said study author Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor at the University of Sydney School of Medicine in Australia.
But now researchers have taken this intel a step further…
New Study Looks at Middle-Aged Walkers
A study from Duke University may give middle-aged folks something to ponder.
Published in the October 2019 JAMA Network Open,2 this study set its sights on hundreds of 45-year-olds. Researchers discovered that the walking speed of this demographic is a strong indication of how their brains and bodies are aging.
Gait speed tests are a benchmark of geriatric care and are typically administered to people 65 and older. These researchers wondered if the tests would be more valuable given at an earlier age.
The researchers used data from a long-term study of nearly 1,000 New Zealanders born in a single year – 1972-1973. Each participant was assessed by a neurologist and measured for intelligence, language and motor skills. Additionally, their general health was regularly assessed and examined through the four decades.
The participants’ slowest gait was about 3.9 feet per second, while the people with the speediest gait averaged about 5.7 feet per second.
Senior researcher Terrie Moffitt, a professor at Duke University, says slow walkers appear to be aging more quickly. She notes that they’ve lost more brain volume in middle-age than folks with a speedier pace. In turn, they perform worse on mental tests.
What’s the Take-Home Message?
“Gait speed at midlife may be a summary index of lifelong aging,” lead author Line Jee Hartmann Rasmussen noted in the study. The interesting thing is walking seems like such a simple thing to do, but it requires the function and interplay of a lot of different organ systems.
In an accompanying commentary to the study, one expert chimed in, suggesting a walking speed of about 3.6 feet per second or slower should be a “cut point” that potentially means a person in his or her 40s may need interventions to prevent disability and dementia later in life.
“Gait speed is a simple, inexpensive indicator of well-being across adulthood. Let’s pay attention and use it,” states Dr. Stephanie Studenski, a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Is a Peppier Gait the key to Longevity?
Study author Rasmussen cautions that simply walking faster isn’t the solution for people who naturally walk slower. And if you are a slower walker this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed to future health problems.
We already knew there was a link between walking speed and longevity in older people. This study is significant because it tells us this relationship is present in younger people as well.
And it provides new motivation to get on a healthier track now, instead of procrastinating.
Still, I believe some folks may be disheartened when reading these findings. Perhaps, they feel the die has been cast and it’s too late to make healthy changes in later years…
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Commit to taking a daily walk. Sure, it’s great if you can make it a brisk – 3.5-4 mile an hour – pace. However, if you’re just starting out, a slower pace is fine. And if you can handle only a ten-minute walk, then start with that, and try to gradually increase your time.
The important thing is to make this healthy behavior part of your life – each and every day!