Should we be walking faster? Fitness experts share the importance of measuring your walking pace, and their advice for reaping the biggest cardio benefits.
If there’s one positive thing a lot of people can take away from the past year, it’s their new love of daily walks and weekend hikes. Accessible and easy-to-do forms of cardio exercise such as walking have been our go-to throughout the various lockdowns, whether it’s breaking up the work day with a lunchtime stroll or exploring the prettiest parks in the UK.
Data from the last February lockdown proves just how much we’ve enjoyed it. Exercise app Strava reported 6.3 times more walkers in London and the South East compared to the same time last year.
And all those strolls are good for us. Regular walking has all the standard benefits of aerobic exercise, such as improvements in the heart and circulatory systems, better blood glucose control, normalization of blood pressure and reduction of anxiety and depression.
But in order to ensure our walks are giving us the best workout possible, it’s important to up the ante a bit. A quick walk round the block just won’t have our hearts racing or our legs aching quite like a fast-paced hike with some Nordic walking poles would.
So how fast do we need to walk to make the most of the benefits? Strong Women turned to the experts for answers. Nanette Mutrie is the director of physical activity for health research at the University of Edinburgh and Sally Davies is a senior physiotherapist at Bupa Health Clinics, and we asked them how, and why, we should check our pace.
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How can we measure walking pace?
A ‘normal’ walking pace is around 100 steps per minute, which translates to one kilometre in 10 mins or 20 minutes per mile, but normal will also vary from person to person. As for a fast walking pace? That would look more like 15-minute miles.
However, we can measure our walking pace based on personal feeling rather than number too. “Normal walking pace should feel like you are breathing a little faster than normal and feeling a little warmer as a result of moving,” explains Nanette. “You should still be able to talk to a buddy who might be walking along with you,” she adds.
Get faster than that and you can begin to class your walk as ‘moderate intensity’ activity. “That means your heart rate increases, you become slightly breathless and you feel warm,” says Sally. Current NHS guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, so you can make your walk count towards that goal.
Is fast walking better for you?
“There are benefits to more vigorous walking, and they are mostly physiological,” Nanette explains. Most obviously, there are cardiovascular benefits from increasing your heart rate. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, a faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Another study from New Zealand also found that walking speed could be directly associated with brain health, too, suggesting that those who walked faster had a lower risk of cognitive decline.
“As with other forms of cardio, brisk walking can lower your risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol, manage diabetes and strengthen your muscles and bones,” adds Sally.
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Is walking slowly still good for you?
“Walking faster is not always best,” says Nanette. “My own view is that the mental health benefits are the most important and the evidence suggests that this does not need to be focussed too much on pace or what your heart rate is doing.”
Walking, regardless of speed, has been shown to be a big mental health booster, particularly when out in nature. But it can also benefit the body, even if you aren’t quick-stepping: a study from 2019 shows that physical activity of any intensity, whether light, moderate or vigorous, is linked with reduced risk of early death.
Nanette says that walking should about finding a pace, location and company you enjoy in order to make it sustainable and regular activity, as the research shows that frequency, rather than pace, is associated with benefits.
How to increase walking pace
“You can adjust your walking pace to best suit your needs and goals,” says Susie. “A higher intensity level of walking may not be possible for everyone, for example if you experience muscle or joint pain, but going on regular walks at a faster pace is more likely to see results such as increased fitness levels at a faster rate.”
However, as with everything, if you want to get a faster pace, you have to keep doing it. But consistency makes the rest easy: “If you are regularly walking, the comfortable pace will continue to increase as you get fitter. You won’t have to think too hard about – it will happen automatically,” says Nanette.
“The goal of walking for health should be to find a pace that you can do without feeling exhausted or as if you do not want to do it again the next day – it has to be sustainable.”
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).