A Brisk Walk Is Better Than A Stroll

May 1, 2014

The "Rock Doc," E. Kirsten Peters.
Credit Northwest Public Radio

Nothing could be better—or healthier—than a walk through the countryside, right?  Wrong.  New research reveals that walking briskly could be better.  "Rock Doc"  Kirsten Peters explains.

My Labrador-mix from the pound, Buster Brown by name, loves to walk with me. On the weekends we often do a six-mile walk around town or along the Snake River where Buster can be off leash (as Mother Nature intends).

While I do walk what many Americans would consider significant distances, I’m not fast. I average about 3 miles per hour. Recently published research suggests that if I want to do my health the most good, I should check with my medical provider and then work on picking up my pace.

The idea about speedier walking comes to me from a report in The New York Times about work done on the National Walkers’ Health Study, a database that records the walking patterns maintained by thousands of Americans who like to walk for exercise. People in the study were recruited starting in 1998. They gave researchers detailed information about their walking habits and their health histories.

Medical authorities recommend we do at least some moderate-intensity exercise for 30 minutes each day, five days a week. For walkers, that translates to walking at about a 4-mile-per-hour pace. In other words, Buster Brown and I don’t make the grade. Still, isn’t it possible that the distances we go make up for our relatively leisurely pace?

Enter a statistician named Paul T. Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has worked through the data on about 39,000 middle-age walkers. His analysis was recently published in the journal PLoS One – that stands for Public Library of Science.

As it happens, almost 2,000 people in the database have died since 1998. Williams work – alas for me – shows that the deaths were drawn disproportionately from the ranks of those who stroll slowly rather than those who stride quickly.  Perhaps worst of all for the likes of me, the death rate among the slow walkers was high even if the distances we trekked were long. In other words, it really seems to matter that some walkers move at a brisk pace, and do so for at least 30 minutes per day.

As Williams put it speaking to a reporter from The New York Times, “Our results do suggest that there is significant health benefit to pursuing a faster pace.”  

One factor that Williams’ work doesn’t fully control for is that the leisurely walkers may have been slow because of a health condition that limited what they could do – and potentially also limited their longevity. That’s true. But that same idea leads to one practical result of William’s work: If you clock your natural walking speed, you may be able to get a basic readout concerning your overall health.

Some would suggest that anything is better than nothing when it comes to exercise. But a brisker pace than what I naturally do could be helpful.

I’ve got to talk it all over with Buster Brown. But perhaps we can try to pick up our pace when we go out for our weekend jaunts.