In our instant-access world, some people long for a return to a slower pace. That's understandable.
But there is one aspect of life in which faster is better: walking. Science has confirmed fast walking could add years to your life as well as life to your years — and even help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and dementia.
Beyond Bone Health: Walking for Your Heart and Mind
The benefits of fast walking are especially dramatic for older walkers. In a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers from five universities found walkers 60 and older who strode at an average pace reduced their cardiovascular risk by 46 percent; fast walkers reduced their risk by 53 percent.1
“Assuming our results reflect cause and effect, these analyses suggest that increasing walking pace may be a straightforward way for people to improve heart health and risk for premature mortality,” said Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, the study's lead author.
“Especially in situations when walking more isn't possible due to time pressures or a less walking-friendly environment, walking faster may be a good option to get the heart rate up — one that most people can easily incorporate into their lives.”
The British study confirms what the National Walkers' Health Study reported in 2013: a brisk walk beats jogging for health benefits while protecting older bones and joints from unnecessary stress. The National Walkers' study was the first of its kind to demonstrate the health benefits of stepping lively over time.2
Drawing from a large database maintained at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, scientists divided participants into four equal categories, based on pace. The fleet of foot enjoyed the greatest longevity. Strollers not only had a higher rate of death — they were more vulnerable to heart disease and dementia as causes of mortality.
If you're a naturally slow walker, there's a silver lining: an incremental increase in pace also reduces the risk of premature death. In the Berkeley study, walkers who were just a minute or so faster than the slowest group still experienced a significant uptick in longevity.
Fast walking can help improve heart health and reduce the risk of dementia and early death — and it's an easy exercise routine to incorporate into your daily life.
How Walking Increases Bone Mineral Density
Another important benefit of fast walking is bone remodeling. Contrary to popular belief, bone is not solid, but is continually being rebuilt, or remodeled, at various sites throughout your skeleton.
In the first year of life, almost 100 percent of bone is remodeled as a baby grows. In adults, remodeling takes place at the rate of about ten percent per year.
However, lack of exercise, especially after menopause, can lead to bone loss. Weakened bones are more prone to breaking, often resulting in the dreaded hip fracture.
Walking can help prevent or forestall this crippling condition. The National Institutes of Health analyzed the results of ten trials and found walking created “significant and positive effects” on bone mineral density of the femur (hip bone) in an older adult population, with walking programs that last longer than six months.4
In other words: walk as if your life depends on it because it does.
Because bone building slows down after menopause, fast walking can help maintain bone mineral density, which in turn helps prevent hip fractures in older adults.
Do You Really Need 10,000 Steps?
If fast walking is one of the keys to healthy aging and building better bones, does that mean more is better? Step counters and advertising would have us believe 10,000 steps is some magical mobility goal. But this figure is more myth than magic.
10,000 steps equal somewhere between four and five miles, depending on your stride. That's a lot of walking in a day, even for a younger person, and may be too ambitious for some seniors.
Basically, how you walk is as important as the amount of walking you do. Leisurely climbing the stairs, ambling along on the treadmill, or wandering casually down the block will all have a negligible effect on your health and bones; the goal is focused, fast walking that raises your heart rate and has you breaking a sweat.
The number of steps you take isn't nearly as important as starting and maintaining a focused fitness program that includes regular fast walking to raise your heart rate.
Other Benefits of Fast Walking
Aside from postponing death, building healthy bones, and helping you to better overall health and fitness, walking saves your brain. It helps you:
- Remain calm
- Sleep better
- Activate creativity6
- Reflect and regenerate (when you walk in nature)7
For optimal well being, walking should be placed in the context of a complete healthy lifestyle program that supports sustainable exercise.
Walking is an all-around body benefit, boosting mood and mental activity as well as bone health.
9 Tips for Smart, Safe, Swift Walking
While walking is second nature, fast walking for health requires a different degree of attention. Follow these nine tips for safe, effective speed walking:
- Start with a stretch. Be sure to warm up with a gentle walk and, some light stretches (to the degree you're able) before embarking on your fast walk.
- Pay attention to posture. Your grandmother may have reminded you to stand up straight, and it's the best advice for fast walking, too. Head up, shoulders back, and walk tall with your eyes forward.
- Relax your shoulders. Hunching causes your body unnecessary strain. Relax — walking is meant to be a fun, natural workout.
- Engage your arms. Swinging your arms from side to side, keeping them slightly bent, makes walking a whole body exercise. The motion will also help increase your speed, like a tailwind.
- Breathe naturally. Some people unconsciously hold their breath when they exercise. The deeper you breathe, the more oxygen circulates through your body, and the more invigorated you'll feel.
- Make it a habit. Schedule your walk just as you would any other appointment. Choose a time of day that suits your natural rhythm. Morning people may prefer to start their day with exercise; a night owl might groan and roll over in bed. Pick a set time, and stick with it.
- Build up your walking time gradually. Remember, it's not the number of steps, but consistency and pace that will reap the most benefit. If you can fast-walk for 20 to 30 minutes a day, at least three times a week, that's a good goal.
- Wear walking shoes that fit. You don't want blisters or pain to derail your efforts. Visit an athletic shoe store and ask a knowledgeable salesperson to help you select the right shoes for your age, gait, and comfort level.
- Congratulate yourself. You’ve created a good habit to keep you healthy and build your bones that will serve you well for the rest of your life.
Warm up, relax, breathe, wear walking shoes that fit, and enjoy your fast walking routine — it's one of the best new habits you can start.
Walking Works At Any Age
Exercise is a sound investment, even if you're well into your senior years. Beginning a fast walking routine can help you build your bones, and stay healthy and mobile longer. Frail, formerly sedentary elders have improved their bone health and fitness significantly via an exercise program that included daily walks, balance and strength training.8
You're never too old to walk. Picking up the pace is a natural way to improve your bone health and have a long, healthy life.
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1 Emmanuel Stamatakis, Paul Kelly, Tessa Strain, Elaine M Murtagh, Ding Ding, Marie H Murphy. “Self-rated walking pace and all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality: individual participant pooled analysis of 50 225 walkers from 11 population British cohorts.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2018; 52 (12): 761 DOI. Web: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/52/12/761
2 Paul T. Williams, Paul D. Thompson. “The Relationship of Walking Intensity to Total and Cause-Specific Mortality..Results from the National Walkers’ Health Study.” Published: November 19, 2013. PLOS One. Web: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0081098
3 F.H. Hooven et al.. “The Global Longitudinal Study of Osteoporosis in Women (GLOW) rationale and study design.” 2009 Jul; 20(7): 1107–1116. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2690851/
4 Ma D, Wu L, He Z. “Effects of walking on the preservation of bone mineral density in perimenopausal and postmenopausal women: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” 2013 Nov;20(11):1216-26. doi: 10.1097/GME.0000000000000100.
5Aspinall P, Mavros P, Coyne R, Roe J. “The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG.” Br J Sports Med. 2015 Feb;49(4):272-6. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23467965
6Dr. Paul Snowden. “Creative Walking” South West Blog. National Trust. Web: http://www.ntsouthwest.co.uk/tag/dr-paul-sowden/
7“Enjoying the great outdoors – nature’s own stress buster.” Economic and Social Research Council. FRI, JUL 26, 2013. Web: http://news.cision.com/the-economic-and-social-research-council/r/enjoying-the-great-outdoors—nature-s-own-stress-buster,c9522265
8 Marco Pahor, MD; Jack M. Guralnik, MD, PHD; Walter T. Ambrosius, PhD; et al. “Effect of Structured Physical Activity on Prevention of Major Mobility Disability in Older Adults.” Journal of the American Medical Association. The LIFE Study Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2014;311(23):2387-2396. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.5616Web: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1875328