Do you really need to start power walking to reap the cardio benefits of walking or is a leisurely stroll just as good? We asked the experts what role pace plays in walking.
If there’s one positive we can take from the pandemic, it’s that as a nation, we’ve rediscovered our love of walking. Whether it’s starting the day with an hour walking in our local green space, or a weekend spent hiking on some near-by hills, we’re way more into walking than we used to be – perhaps because we know that it only takes 20 minutes of walking to improve our health.
Don’t just take our word for it: during the second lockdown, Strava reported 6.3 times more walkers in London and the South East compared to the same time the previous year. And now that society has resumed, many of us are still lacing up and heading out for fresh air.
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 5K powerwalk.
So, how fast do we need to walk to make the most of the benefits? We put the question to Nanette Mutrie, director of physical activity for health research at the University of Edinburgh and Sally Davies, senior physiotherapist at Bupa Health Clinics, to find out how, and why, we should check our walking pace.
How can we measure walking pace?
An average 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 Mutrie. “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 Davies. 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,” Mutrie 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 Davies.
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Is walking slowly still good for you?
“Walking faster is not always best,” says Mutrie. “My own view is that the mental health benefits are the most important and the evidence suggests that this does not need to be focused 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.
Mutrie 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 Davies. “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 Mutrie.
“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.”
Up for a challenge? Join the Stylist community for a 22km charity hike this June at one of our Strong Women Treks.
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).