Gym-goers might sniff at the idea of calling a walk a workout, yet Dr Stacy Clemes, describes it as “almost the perfect form of physical activity”.
“There is strong evidence that walking will reduce blood pressure, help to control blood glucose levels so that it effectively reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and that it wards off heart disease,” adds the researcher in public health at Loughborough University’s school of sport, exercise and health sciences.
“It will definitely help you lose weight, but also offers a tremendous boost to mental health in combating stress and anxiety.”
In October researchers at Duke University in North Carolina reported the walking speed of middle-aged people is a reliable marker of how quickly their brains and bodies are ageing. At age 45, slow walkers not only displayed accelerated ageing on a 19-point scale developed by their department of psychology and neuroscience, but their lungs, teeth and immune systems were in worse condition than in faster walkers.
“Our research has shown a linear relationship between your daily step count and improved health,” Clemes says. “Increasing walking-based exercise by just 10 per cent over a few weeks can produce very real improvements in your waistline, mood and all-round wellness, and the greatest effects tend to come in people who don’t do much walking at first.”
Scientists have rewritten the rules about healthy walking. Here’s what you need to know.
Aim for a minimum 4500 steps
The default goal of walking 10,000 steps a day seems to be a figure that was plucked at random by a Japanese company that marketed a pedometer in the 1960s.
“The 10,000-step goal can be off-putting if you are nowhere close to it,” Clemes says. “Any increase is good.”
For a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in May, I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, aimed to quantify how walking benefited older women (mostly in their 70s).
Analysing data from 17,000 participants who had worn an activity tracker for a week between 2011 and 2015, and cross-referencing data with death records, Lee and colleagues found the women who had covered the fewest daily steps — about 2700 — were the most likely to have died during the follow-up period, and those who managed 4500 daily steps were about 40 per cent less likely to have died than their lower-tally counterparts.
The intensity of effort wasn’t found to make a difference. “We were quite surprised that such a relatively small number of steps would be associated with such a substantial reduction in mortality,” Lee said.
Add more steps for better sleep
The farther you walk, the better you are likely to sleep, according to a study published in October in the journal Sleep Health.
Researchers at Brandeis University in Massachusetts provided a group of 59 middle-aged men and women with an activity tracker for a month, during which they were encouraged to fit more steps into their schedules.
During the trial they were asked about sleep habits. Results showed a firm association between more walking and better sleep. On average, participants managed 7000 steps a day and, although those who covered more reported greater sleep improvements, even this amount produced better sleep.
Try this workout
To get a real fitness boost requires effort beyond your regular stroll — the best way is with bursts of speed. “If you pick up the pace significantly, you can get away with walking for less time and distance overall,” Clemes says.
“You need to elevate your pulse so that you are working hard and it will count as vigorous activity.”
For a study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr Shizue Masuki, a researcher at Shinshu University in Japan, asked a group of adults to follow a program she had developed with colleagues.
Interval-walking training sessions involved fast walking at 70 per cent of maximum walking speed — enough to leave you puffing — for three minutes, then walking at 40 per cent of maximum speed (slower, but not a complete dawdle) for three minutes, and repeating the whole thing at least five or more times, meaning each session lasted about half an hour.
They were asked to do IWT four or more days a week for five months. At the end of the trial Masuki’s walkers achieved a 14 per cent increase in their maximal oxygen uptake — a measure of fitness — and a 17 per cent decrease in lifestyle-related disease. And the best news is the benefits peaked at a total of 50 minutes of the fast-walking bursts per week — beyond that the fitness and health effects plateaued.
Aim for 100 steps a minute
Brisk walking is recommended for fitness improvements, but what does that mean?
Reporting in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year, a team from the University of Massachusetts reviewed 38 studies to come up with a definition of “brisk” walking as 100 steps a minute (or 4.3km/h).
It’s a pace the previous research had associated with improvements in health and, suggested Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts, is easy to measure by counting how many steps you typically take in 10 seconds and multiplying by six.
Don’t worry if you are not bang on target — hitting 98-102 steps a minute — but “100 steps per minute is a good rule of thumb for almost everyone”, she said.
If you are looking for more of a workout, 130 steps a minute was found to constitute vigorous walking, while 140 steps is the same as jogging.
At 60 or over, the rules are less clearly defined — Tudor-Locke found the ideal pace to be inconsistent in older people — and you should walk as close to 100 steps a minute or as fast as you comfortably can.
Head out for at least 10 minutes
Scientists from the University of California’s Irvine Centre for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory last year looked at the effects of mild exercise, such as walking, on brain function and found after even 10 minutes, performance in complex memory tests improves. MRI scans revealed the parts of the brain associated with learning worked more effectively after activity. “It looks like people can improve their memories with a short walk,” said Dr Michael Yassa, a lead researcher.
Little and often is OK
For a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers looked at data from 4840 people 40 or over who wore fitness trackers between 2003 and 2006. Predictably, those active for less than 20 minutes a day were at the greatest risk of dying early. Moving about for an hour a day offered the greatest protection and reduced the risk of early death by half, but it didn’t seem to matter if that activity came in one bout or in bursts of two or three minutes.
“The message is that the more you walk, the better,” Clemes says. “Every little counts.”