Study: Walking faster prolongs life

Walking, fast or slow, is wonderful exercise. But now a first-of-its-kind study shows that to get the most health benefits from walking, many of us need to pick up the pace.

The New York Times “Well” blog reports a recent study published in PLoS One indicates middle-aged people can improve the benefits of walking for exercise by increasing their pace.

According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory statistician Paul T. Williams, “Our results do suggest that there is a significant health benefit to pursuing a faster pace,” as pushing one’s body “appears to cause favorable physiological changes that milder exercise doesn’t replicate.”

The Times goes on to report:

Unexpectedly, the death rate remained high among the slowest walkers, even if they met or exceeded the standard exercise guidelines and expended as much energy per day as someone walking briskly for 30 minutes. This effect was most pronounced among the slowest of the slow walkers, whose pace was 24 minutes per mile or higher. They were 44 percent more likely to have died than walkers who moved faster, even if they met the exercise guidelines.

But there are nuances and caveats to that conclusion. The slowest walkers may have harbored underlying health conditions that predisposed them to both a tentative walking pace and early death. But that possibility underscores a subtle takeaway of the new study, Dr. Williams said. Measuring your walking speed, he pointed out, could provide a barometer of your health status.

So check yours, your spouse’s or perhaps your parents’ pace. The process is easy. Simply find a 400-meter track and, using a stopwatch, have everyone walk at his or her normal speed. If a circuit of the track takes someone 6 minutes or more, that person’s pace is 24 minutes per mile or slower, and he or she might consider consulting a doctor about possible health issues, Dr. Williams said.

Then, with medical clearance, the slow walkers probably should try ramping up their speed, gradually.

The most encouraging news embedded in the new study is that longevity rises with small improvements in pace. The walkers in Category 3, for instance, moved at a speed only a minute or so faster per mile than some of those in the slowest group, but they enjoyed a significant reduction in their risk of dying prematurely.

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