Slow walkers may have new reason to speed up their stroll.
A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine finds that fast walkers — and even average-speed walkers — are considerably less likely to die early than those who walk slowly. Compared to slowpokes, fast and average-speed walkers had a roughly 20% lower overall mortality risk, and a similar reduction in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
“The main takeaway message is that stepping up the pace may be a good hack to make walking more health-enhancing,” said first author Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the University of Sydney School of Medicine in Australia, in an email to TIME.
The researchers used data from two large health surveys: the Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey. In total, they analyzed data provided by more than 50,000 English and Scottish adults, who self-reported their average perceived walking speed (slow, average, fairly brisk or fast) and other health metrics. They tracked these people for an average of nine years, during which time 3,617 people died. More than 1,000 of them died from cardiovascular disease.
This study could not definitively say if fast walking causes better health, or vice versa. It may simply be that fit, healthy people tend to walk faster than those who are ailing. But the researchers write in the paper that walking speed appears to affect mortality risk independent of total physical activity, perhaps thanks to “the increased relative exercise intensity” of walking fast. In other words, speedy stepping may strengthen the heart better than leisurely strolling, in keeping with long-standing associations between exercise and cardiovascular health.
While Stamatakis acknowledges that how fast you walk isn’t always an easy thing to change, he says making an effort to pick up the pace can be particularly beneficial for certain people.
“In those individuals who do very little exercise, walk very little (e.g. under 3,000-4,000 steps per day) and/or are not very physically fit, stepping up their usual walking pace to the point they are out of breath after a few minutes can be a great way to start building some fitness,” Stamatakis says. He adds that the association between walking pace and mortality risk was particularly pronounced among older adults, who are at a higher overall risk of cardiovascular disease and death than younger people.
The paper notes that using self-reported walking speed — which is not verifiable, and can vary depending on a person’s frame of reference — opens the data up to misclassifications. The researchers also weren’t able to study the effects of changes in walking speed. Even still, the results suggest a clear connection between walking pace and health.
In the end, though, Stamatakis says getting your daily steps in, however fast or slow, is a healthy behavior that should be encouraged.
“Walking pace seems to be important,” he says. “But first and foremost, we need to emphasize the value of walking of any intensity and pace.”