A Brisk Walking Pace is Better

by Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
One of the things my mutt from the pound and I like to do together is go on long walks. Sometimes on weekends, Buster Brown and I stroll at the bottom of the Snake River Canyon where dogs can be off-leash (as Mother Nature intended). There’s a six-mile walk in the canyon we like to do; me limping along in a straight line, Buster ranging over a wider area of ground sniffing for wildlife.
Closer to home, there is a six-mile loop around town we enjoy. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we simply feel better about the world when we’ve completed a long walk.
While I do walk what many Americans would consider significant distances, I am not fast. I think I average about three miles per hour. Recently published research suggests that if I want to do my health the most good, I should check with my medical provider and then work on picking up my pace.
The idea about speedier walking comes from work done on the National Walkers’ Health Study, a database that records the walking patterns maintained by thousands of Americans who like to walk for exercise. People in the study were recruited starting in 1998. They gave researchers detailed information about their walking habits and their health histories.
Medical authorities recommend we do at least some moderate-intensity exercise for 30 minutes each day, five days a week. For walkers, that translates to walking at about a four-mile-per-hour pace. In other words, Buster Brown and I don’t make the grade. We walk, all right, but not fast enough to get some of the health benefits of exercise. Still, isn’t it possible that the long distances we go makes up for our relatively leisurely pace?
Enter a statistician named Paul T. Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who has worked through the data on about 39,000 middle aged walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study. His analysis was recently published in the journal PLoS One and summarized in the New York Times.
Death catches up to all of us, even the most lean and serious of walkers. Almost 2,000 people out of the total of 39,000 in the database have died since 1998. Williams’ work –– alas for me –– shows that the deaths were disproportionately drawn from the ranks of those who stroll slowly rather than those who stride quickly along. Perhaps worst of all for the likes of me, the death rate among the slow walkers was high even if the distances trekked were long. In other words, it really seems to matter that some walkers move at a brisk pace, and do so for at least 30 minutes per day.
“Our results do suggest that there is significant health benefit to pursuing a faster pace,” William said to the New York Times.
One factor that Williams’ work doesn’t fully control for is that the leisurely walkers may have been slow because they had a health condition that limited what they could do –– and potentially also limited their longevity. That’s true. But that same idea, according to Williams, leads to one practical result of his work: If you clock your natural walking speed, you may be able to get a basic sense of your overall health.
The bottom line appears to be that brisk walking is better than a slower stroll, even if us slow-pokes walk for long distances. But as I understand it, anything is better than nothing when it comes to walking, and many Americans don’t walk or otherwise exercise hardly at all. I’m a geologist, not a medical doctor, but I think that if you exercise every day, as I come close to doing, it’s important to have enjoyment in what you do. Walking with a friend and my dog on the weekend is a pleasure, and long walks are great pleasures. Still, more vigorous walking than what some of us naturally do could be more helpful to our health.
I’ve got to talk the matter over with Buster Brown, but perhaps we can try to pick up the pace when we go out together for our weekend jaunts.
 Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.•