Step lively: Walking pace matters as much as the number of steps you take

A brisk, very long walk significantly cuts the risk of dementia and death from just about anything except a speeding car.

A brisk, very long walk significantly cuts the risk of dementia and death from just about anything except a speeding car. Photo: Getty

There’s been a bit of whingeing in recent years that the daily devotion to 10,000 steps was too difficult for many people to accomplish, and that it wasn’t based on science anyway.

It’s true that the magic number originated in 1965, when a Japanese clock company invented a pedometer named the Manpo-kei, which means “10,000 steps meter”.

Over time, it became one of those rules to follow or ignore: floss your teeth twice a day, drink eight glasses of water, accumulate 10,000 steps per day for the sake of your health.

So where was the science in all this?

Those clockmakers, by chance or genius, turned out to be right.

As we reported a year ago, Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that walking at least 7000 steps a day reduced middle-aged people’s risk of premature death from all causes by 50 per cent to 70 per cent, compared to that of other middle-aged people who took fewer daily steps.

To get that 70 per cent reduced risk meant walking more than 9000 steps – in other words, close to 10,000 steps – and that’s where the benefits soon after plateaued.

That study involved about 2100 participants between the ages of 38 and 50 who wore accelerometers in 2005 or 2006. They were followed up for 11 years.

The Massachusetts researchers concluded that walking more than 10,000 steps, or about eight kilometres, didn’t further the risk of dying early.

Curiously, they also concluded that walking faster conferred no additional benefit.

A bigger study finds that pace does in fact matter

In two related studies, Australian and Danish researchers monitored 78,500 adults with wearable trackers – and followed their health outcomes over seven years.  .

The participants had a larger age range than the Massachusetts study – between 40 to 79 years.

They researchers found that a “lowered risk of dementia, heart disease, cancer and death are associated with achieving 10,000 steps a day”.

A long walk on the beach is good for your heart, and sweet heart. Photo: Getty

However, a faster stepping pace, as achieved in a ‘power walk’, showed benefits “above and beyond the number of steps achieved”.

“The take-home message here is that for protective health benefits people could not only ideally aim for 10,000 steps a day but also aim to walk faster,” said co-lead author Dr Matthew Ahmadi, Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health.

The new studies can be found here and here.

Key points

  • Every 2000 steps lowered risk of premature death incrementally by 8 to 11 per cent, up to approximately 10,000 steps a day.
  • Similar associations were seen for cardiovascular disease and cancer incidence.
  • A higher number of steps per day was associated with a lower risk of all-cause dementia
  • 9800 steps was the optimal dose linked to lower risk of dementia by 50 per cent, however risk was reduced by 25 per cent at as low as 3,800 steps a day
  • Stepping intensity or a faster pace showed beneficial associations for all outcomes (dementia, heart disease, cancer and death) over and above total daily steps.

This can’t be a surprise

Of course walking at a faster pace will make a difference, especially to your heart and brain, because you have more blood pumping through your body per minute.

As we reported in April last year, brisk walking reversed stiff arteries and boosted blood flow to the brain in people with mild memory loss, according to a new study.

The US research also reportedly found that participants who engaged in brisk walking over the course of a year performed better on tests of executive function, which are thinking skills involved in planning and decision-making.

And walking too slowly can do you in.

As we reported in 2019, a New Zealand study a slower walking gait at the age of 45 appears to indicate evidence of “accelerated ageing” – including how much your brain has shrunk and your body has declined.

According to a statement from the researchers, MRI scans during their last assessment (April this year) showed the slower walkers tended to have “lower total brain volume, lower mean cortical thickness, less brain surface area and higher incidence of white matter hyper-intensities, small lesions associated with small vessel disease of the brain. In short, their brains appeared somewhat older”.

How fast should one aim for?

In 2018, a Harvard Health article cited a number of studies that were all in agreement: 100 steps per minute is what we would call brisk or moderate walking.

One hundred steps per minutes is about 4.3 kilometres an hour.

As the Harvard Health article advises: this is a good goal speed for a middle-aged person to aim for.

For a fit person who exercises regularly it may be a little slow, except if sustained over a longer distance. Such as 10,000 steps.

On the other hand, “100 steps per minute might be too fast for people who are out of shape, either because they don’t have a regular fitness routine or have been sidelined by injury or illness”.

Read more how to pace yourself here.

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