New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology found that individuals who walk at a brisk pace for an average of 30 minutes a day have a lower risk of developing heart disease, cancer, dementia, and death than individuals who walk a similar number of steps at a slower pace.
The link between walking speed and health outcomes
For the studies, researchers analyzed activity tracker data from 78,500 UK Biobank participants, representing the largest trial to use data from activity trackers.
"Activity tracker data is going to be better than self-reported data," said Michael Fredericson, a sports physician at Stanford University, who was not involved in the study. "We know that people's ability to self-report is flawed," often because participants do not accurately recall how much they exercise during a certain day or week.
On average, participants were 61 years old. At the start of the trial, they were asked to wear activity trackers for seven days and nights. Then, researchers tracked the participants' health outcomes, including whether they developed heart disease, cancer, dementia, or died during a period of six to eight years.
For every 2,000 additional daily steps, participants lowered their risk of premature death, heart disease, and cancer by roughly 10%, up to roughly 10,000 daily steps.
Researchers found that taking 9,800 steps per day was associated with a 50% lower risk of developing dementia. However, even 3,800 daily steps reduced the risk of dementia by 25%.
To determine if walking speed affected health outcomes, researchers looked at participants' step rate per minute. When they compared the most intense 30 minutes of activity in participants' days, they found that those with the highest pace—between 80 and 100 steps per minute—had better health outcomes than those who walked a similar number of steps at a lower pace.
In particular, the fastest walkers had a 35% lower risk of death, a 25% lower risk of developing heart disease or cancer, and a 30% lower risk of developing dementia than participants with a slower average pace.
According to these findings, an individual that incorporates 2,400 to 3,000 brisk steps into their daily steps could significantly reduce their risk for developing heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
"It doesn't have to be a consecutive 30-minute session," said Matthew Ahmadi, a research fellow at the University of Sydney and one of the study authors. "It can just be in brief bursts here and there throughout your day."
Ultimately, researchers noted that the most important thing to focus on is walking faster than your average pace.
How to boost health outcomes by walking
When incorporating higher intensity exercises into an exercise routine, Tamanna Singh, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, urges her patients to remember that everything is relative. "Everybody is starting from a different training status," Singh said.
For instance, what may be considered a fast pace for one person may not be fast for another—the relative effort is what matters most.
At a brisk walking pace, "at these moderate levels of effort, you are able to increase your aerobic capacity," Singh said.
The best way to set a brisk pace is to walk at a manageable level of intensity that also pushes the limits of what feels like a comfortable pace. "That constant slow stress on your body is what leads to fitness gains," Singh said.