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a woman brisk walking alongside a wall

Could walking faster mean living longer?

A study recently published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings has found that walking briskly could add 10-20 years to your life! The project was co-authored by Tom Yates, professor of physical activity, sedentary behaviour and health at the University of Leicester and Dr. Francesco Zaccardi, clinical epidemiologist at the University of Leicester. 

The study lasted for over 10 years and included nearly 475,000 participants. Researchers wanted to see how different measures of physical fitness – specifically walking pace and hand grip strength – are associated with life expectancy, across different levels of obesity. This research area was chosen because there is ongoing debate about the importance of physical fitness and obesity on health outcomes. Researchers measured participant’s walking paces (slow, normal/steady, brisk/fast), hand grip strength and relative body weight using different measures of obesity including body mass index (BMI). Body Mass Index is the measure of body fat based on height and weight and is often used as a key indicator in determining an individual’s health.

Interestingly, the authors found that a person’s walking pace of slow, steady or brisk, was a more powerful predictor of one’s life expectancy than BMI was. Participants who reported having a brisk walking pace had a long-life expectancy, regardless of their BMI. Women’s life expectancy in this category ranged from 86.7 to 87.8 years and men ranged from 85.2 to 86.8 years. Individuals who reported slow walking paces had the slowest life expectancy with 72.4 years for women and 64.8 years for men.

“The findings suggest that perhaps physical fitness is a better indicator of life expectancy than BMI and that encouraging the population to engage in brisk walking may add years to their lives,” stated Yates.

It’s important to note that the study involved self-reported walking paces. It’s possible that there may be an inconsistency between what the researchers would define as slow, steady and brisk walking and what participants considered slow, steady or brisk walking. Nevertheless, this research serves as more scientific evidence for the power of walking!

In July of 2019, many news stations covered the fascinating findings from this study. In Globe and Mail’s coverage, Gareth Nock, national team training coach, provided readers with some “Proper Walking Tips”:

  • Wear the right shoes: Look for sneakers or walking shoes that are flexible and have a good level of support.
  • Watch your posture: Stand tall with your eyes up and your shoulders back. Many people tend to let their heads fall forward so focus on rolling your shoulders back and down and looking ahead. Focus on drawing your navel towards your spine (abdominals braced) to support your lower back and overall posture.
  • Swing your arms: Arms should swing naturally and loosely from the shoulders. Move the opposite arm to the leg that is stepping forward and keep your wrists straight, your hands unclenched and your elbows close to your sides.

As little as 4,500 steps a day can have health benefits for older women

A new study at Harvard University concludes that for older women, walking as few as 4,500 steps a day reduced mortality compared with those who took only 2,700 steps a day.

Any movement, whether or not it counts as exercise, may help to extend people’s lives. People who are active have lower incidences of heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes and usually live longer than people who are sedentary. However, confusion remains about how much exercise we need and how intense it should be. Past research suggests meeting or even exceeding a 10,000-step-a-day goal. Mobile applications and fitness trackers have 10,000-step-a-day exercise goals built into them. The Canadian Physical Activity Guideline for adults 18-64 years is 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

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In an interview with New York Times, I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, who led the study, said: “People may not intuitively grasp what 150 minutes a week of exercise means in practical terms. Step counts are simpler, more concrete and convenient measure of physical activity. We can understand the concept of a step and how to add them up.”

Dr. Lee and her team looked at data from the Women’s Health Study, which has been tracking the health and habits of older women for decades. In that study, thousands of older women worn sophisticated activity monitor for a week. The monitors tracked the steps each woman took per minute throughout the day (but without showing any readouts of the totals, so the women would not know or respond to the counts).

Dr. Lee and her team gathered the step-count and health data from almost 17,000 of the participants, most of them in their 70s, and none of whom reported poor health. They also checked death records for the subsequent four to five years and than compared step counts and mortality. The team found that the women who had moved the least, taking only about 2,700 steps a day, were the most likely to have died during the follow-up period. Women who moved more often had considerably less risk of premature death, up to 7,500 steps a day. The threshold for reducing the risk of premature death was about 4,500 steps a day. Thos who reached 4,500 steps were 40 per cent less likely to have died during the follow-up period.

In terms of intensity, majority of the women strolled, rather than rushed; only a few walked intensively and for exercise. In this study, only the number of steps per day was associated with mortality, not the speed with which the women accumulated them.

This study looked at older women and mortality – further research is required to see if the findings apply to men or younger people. Dr. Lee concluded: “Even so, the findings suggest that step counts can be a useful way to measure exercise and that taking more steps is better than taking fewer.”