Picking up the pace enhances health benefits of walking

Speed and number of steps both help reduce disease risk, study finds

Primary care doctors have long touted the health benefits of walking to their patients. Now they may also want to emphasize the value of walking a little faster.

Two new studies in JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology examine the association between step count, intensity (walking speed) and the likelihood of developing certain diseases. The studies’ authors gave devices that measured daily step counts and walking speeds to about 78,000 adults age 40-79 in the U.K. and asked them to wear the devices for a week.

They segmented participants’ walking speeds into three categories ranging from less than 40 steps per minute to what they term “purposeful” or “peak-30 cadence,” defined as the average steps per minute for the 30 highest (but not necessarily consecutive) minutes per day. The researchers then tracked participants’ rates of cancer, heart disease, dementia and death from all causes for the next six to eight years.

They found that for every additional 2,000 steps walked per day, the risk of developing cancer or cardiovascular disease, or dying from any cause, dropped by approximately 10%. Walking 9,800 steps per day lowered the risk of dementia by 50%, with 3,800 steps per day bringing a 25% reduction in risk.

When they examined the effects of speed, the researchers found that those who could average 80 to 100 steps per minute for 30 minutes per day had a 25% lower risk of developing heart disease or cancer, a 30% lower risk of dementia, and a 35% lower risk of dying from any cause than those who walked at a slower pace.

The authors say their findings lend weight to the usefulness of step counts as a way of measuring, and communicating, the benefits of walking—especially for people whose physical activity is largely incidental, unstructured and unplanned.

“For individuals who are not intentionally tracking their physical activity, it may be challenging to recall time-based physical activity amounts or determine whether they are sufficiently active in relation to the current minute- and intensity-based guidelines,” they write. “Therefore, step-based guidelines could provide useful supplementary recommendations to the current physical activity guidelines.”