Though walking is widely lauded by public health officials and fitness advocates alike for its health benefits, new research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows people may need to move a little more quickly in order for their exercise to be effective.
The study, published online in PLOS One last month, surveyed more than 38,000 recreational walkers from 1998 to 2001 to determine how many miles per week they walked and what their average pace was. A decade later, the walkers’ self-reported data was compared to the National Death Index, a database of yearly deaths and their causes. The study found that participants who reported a higher average walking pace had a much lower rate of mortality compared to those who claimed to walk more slowly.
According to Paul Williams, the study’s principal author and staff scientist at the Berkeley lab, these results show that the characteristics of a person’s walking behavior can predict the risk of dying from cardiovascular troubles.
“People have a pretty good sense of what their walking pace is,” Williams said. “This has the ability to give people information that they’re at increased risk for mortality if they’re walking slowly, and those people might monitor their health more closely.”
When the study began, the average age of the participants was in the mid-40s. Today, as the participants are approaching their 60s, they may become vulnerable to new diseases that manifest later on in life, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The participants’ heightened susceptibility to a new range of diseases makes future research even more valuable for predicting whether exercise translates into the ability to age well and into increased longevity, Williams said.
“This is an ongoing study,” Williams said. “By getting new information through more follow up, we can refine government recommendations to tell people to walk faster. Walking is probably the most popular type of physical activity in the country, and we hope to better define the type of walking that people should engage in.”
In light of this public health concern, the campus’s University Health Services holds several wellness programs aimed at increasing exercise among students and faculty alike. One such program, Health*Matters, recently began trainer-led fitness walking clinics to teach better walking habits, such as increased pace.
“I wouldn’t deter someone who’s walking versus sitting, but when we get our heart rate up a little bit, we get the benefits of lowering things like our bad cholesterol,” said Trish Ratto, manager of Health*Matters. “We need to start awareness to pick up our pace a little faster than a window-shopping stroll.”