Walking has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, reduce stress, boost mood and help with weight loss. However, if you’re looking to increase longevity, it turns out walking speed matters — and you benefit from upping your pace. A recent study found a slower walking speed could be an indicator of a shorter lifespan and increase your chances of aging prematurely.
The study published in Jama Network Open sought to determine if walking speed could be associated with biological aging, neurocognitive function and cognitive decline. The research, conducted over five decades, involved more than 900 participants who were studied for biological indicators of aging based on how fast they walked. The research began when participants were 3 years of age, with the last measurements taken at age 45.
Researchers focused on the top 20th percentile and the bottom 20th percentile of the 900 participants, measuring performance differences in three walking categories:
Normal walking speed
Normal walking speed while reciting the alphabet, skipping every other letter
Fastest walking speed
Slower walkers measured an average of 2.7 miles per hour (mph), while the fastest walkers in the group averaged about 3.9 mph. Body mass index (BMI), white blood cell counts, overall cardiovascular fitness tests and neurological imaging to determine brain health were performed.
According to the findings, slower walking speed negatively impacted brain and overall physical health in each of the categories measured. Slower walkers also looked older in appearance and had lower balance and grip strength scores.
Moreover, this issue wasn’t just related to older folks; researchers also found slower walking speed was associated with accelerated aging, compromised brain health, decreased brain volume and lowered neurocognitive functioning in all age categories — including those measurements taken as early as 3 years old.
To be able to walk at a greater speed, the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system have to work together with your muscles, heart, lungs and eyes. Because of the interconnectedness, the better these systems are operating, the better your overall health.
The good news is no matter your age and walking speed right now, exercising regularly can help improve the function of these systems. The earlier you start to participate in an activity like walking, the sooner these benefits can be achieved.
Walking every day for exercise, getting the family involved and concentrating at least a few of your weekly walks on improving your overall speed can have a lasting impact and slow the process of aging.
While getting up and moving at any speed is definitely better than not at all, once you are ready to take the next step to move faster, here are some things you can do:
Concentrate on form: Perfecting your arm swing, utilizing your core and making your stride more efficient takes coordination, balance and strength. Working on your technique activates the brain and body and helps them learn to work in unison.
Build duration slowly: It’s important to increase duration gradually to prevent injury while focusing on good form. Try this workout a couple times a week and slowly increase the distance and pace: Walk at your usual, comfortable pace for 10–15 minutes. Walk at the fastest speed you can maintain for 1/4 mile. Alternate by walking the next 1/4 mile at your regular walking pace. Do this for 2 miles. Cool down at your normal pace for 10 minutes.
Add intervals: After a 5–10-minute warmup, walk as fast as you can for 1 minute followed by 2 minutes of walking at a recovery pace. Alternate for about 20 minutes and follow with a 10-minute cooldown. The next time you do the workout, see if you can average a faster pace than your previous session.
Strength train: Lifting weights a couple times a week helps prevent muscle mass loss as you age. It’s also important to build lower-body and core strength to help propel your body to walk at faster speeds.