New study reveals number of steps is not most important when walking

walking speed influences health

That walking is good for maintaining your overall health and fitness is old news. But did you know that those who walk faster get a lot more benefits from their walk than a saunter? Even if you don't reach the recommended ten thousand steps a day. That's according to a new study published in journals JAMA Neurology and JAMA Internal Medicine.

If you're reading this with an activity tracker around your wrist, which you faithfully glance at every night to see how many steps you've taken that day? Good, then you know exercise is healthy and you're actively doing it. What you may not know is exactly what the number of steps on your screen means for your overall health. Is more always better and are 10,000 steps really the ultimate? Is there any difference at all between taking steps while strolling (past store windows, for example) and walking at a brisk pace?

About The Study

A new study, published be the University of Sydney, brings clarity. There is indeed a difference, and a very big one at that. A team of researchers analyzed data from 78,500 people wearing a tracker. The participants were 61 years old on average and wore the device day and night for a week. After collecting the stored data, the researchers followed up on the participants' lives for six to eight years to see who developed or died of heart disease, cancer or dementia.

3,800 steps a day reduces risk

The first conclusion? It's not a big deal if you don't reach the guideline of 10,000 steps a day. Your body already enjoys the health benefits of walking starting at 3,800 steps a day. The researchers did find that the risk of heart disease, cancer and premature death decreases by about 10 percent after every additional 2,000 steps you take. The closer you get to those 10,000 steps, the more comprehensive the benefits package.

When it comes to preventing dementia, it is best to take 9,800 steps a day. If you take that many steps daily, your chance of getting the disease would be 50 percent lower. From 3,800 steps, you have a 25 percent reduction in risk. Whether there are further benefits if you take more than 10,000 steps a day is not known. There were not enough participants going over that to determine any positive effects.

A second, surprising and totally new discovery…

In addition to this conclusion, the study provided a second, surprising and totally new discovery that may interest those with time constraints. The pace of your walk is more important than the number of steps on the counter.

If you march at a brisk pace for half an hour every day, you are already significantly less likely to get heart disease, cancer, dementia and premature death than those who walk slowly for half an hour. You don't even have to walk for thirty minutes at a stretch: walking at a brisk pace at various times a day to get to that half hour is fine, too.

Relative effort, constant challenge

Before you put on your walking shoes to go fast walking in the neighborhood and strain your muscles: the scientists also looked at the ideal speed of strides. You're fine if you take between eighty and one hundred steps per minute.

Obviously, it is not obvious to keep up with that yourself. That is why the experts say that the most important thing is to focus on a higher pace than you are used to. After all, intensity improves fitness.

A brisk pace for one person may not be fast for another. What matters is the relative effort. At a light training intensity, a person can easily sing another song, while at a moderate intensity, a person can easily carry on a conversation but would have difficulty singing.

At higher intensities, conversation becomes difficult, if not impossible. The key is to walk at an intensity that is manageable, but that also slightly pushes the boundaries of what is a comfortable pace. That constant challenge to your body leads to fitness gains. As a beginner, this is probably the easiest way to stay dedicated, consistent and injury-free.

Metabolic Boost

You also can't keep walking faster; at some point, you start walking, says Lies Helsloot, author of Walking You Slim and Happy, among other books. Interval training can be an extra challenge while walking. This is best known with runners or cyclists, but it works fine with walkers, too.

It boils down to this: the intensity of your pace is higher one moment than the next. You alternate those bursts of energy with periods of quiet movement. For a time, you walk at your normal brisk pace and then alternate with super-fast walking, as if a big dog is chasing you. This boosts your metabolism, so you burn a lot of extra calories.

Above all, keep encouraging yourself when you feel your walking legs seem to be reaching their maximum. It can often be just that little bit faster, Helsloot adds. If you walk for at least an hour every day, you'll get used to it after a while. You will soon notice that you no longer get slightly out of breath. That's positive, of course.

But those who need more challenge will find a good benchmark just in that. In other words, when your daily brisk walk no longer gives you any effort, it's time to go a little faster. Then you can increase your average walking pace and thus your heart rate. This will prevent you from reaching a plateau and, for those who want to lose pounds, also prevent your weight loss from stagnating.

Outside is better

Walking outside, by the way, also lifts your mental well-being to a higher level. Outside, there is something to discover. Just look around at what you see. The cows in the meadow, the environment in itself: it makes you happy, says sports doctor Chris Goossens. You walk to a point where you really shouldn't be at all, purely for pleasure. That's what I advise people: get out! When you get on a treadmill, you quickly stop when you get tired of it.

The cows in the meadow, the environment in itself: it makes you happy…

Once outside, you have to come back. Greet Cardon, professor and chair of the Movement and Sports Sciences Department at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Ghent University, agrees that the outdoors works wonders. In nature, many influences fall away. You experience less stress, the brain gets more oxygen and the whistling of birds has a positive effect on the mind.

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About the Author: Jenna Martin

Jenna Martin is the glue that holds our office together. Jenna is our chief editor and she handles the everyday busywork. Jenna is a specialist in Health and Lifestyle news articles.