How fast you walk is more important than doing 10,000 daily steps

Woman on a walk. (Getty Images)
Try picking up the pace to make that walk really count. (Getty Images)

The speed you walk at is just as (if not more) important for your health as getting in a high number of steps a day, new research reveals.

Walking as many as 10,000 steps every day is associated with a lower risk of dementia, heart disease, cancer and death.

But while you may already be aware of these benefits to general health, experts have now discovered that a faster pace has positive outcomes that go beyond the total number of steps, based on UK data.

"The take-home message here is that for protective health benefits people could not only ideally aim for 10,000 steps a day but also aim to walk faster," said co-lead author Dr Matthew Ahmadi, research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health.

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Man walking dog. (Getty Images)
A faster pace has beneficial outcomes for dementia, heart disease and cancer, over and above total daily steps. (Getty Images)

The researchers have also suggested exactly how many steps a day it takes to achieve reduced health risks.

“For less active individuals, our study also demonstrates that as low as 3,800 steps a day can cut the risk of dementia by 25%," said associate professor Borja del Pozo Cruz from the University of Southern Denmark, a senior researcher in health at the University of Cadiz.

For every 2,000 steps walked per day the risk of premature death was lowered between 8% to 11% – the maximum beneficial number was up to around 10,000 steps a day.

While similar links were seen for cardiovascular disease and cancer, a higher number of steps per day was associated with a lower risk of all types of dementia.

The researchers were able to pinpoint that walking 9,800 steps was the optimal daily amount linked to a 50% lower risk of dementia, but risk was reduced by 25% at as low as 3,800 steps.

While this is useful for people with varying fitness levels to be aware of, perhaps most importantly they found that stepping intensity or a faster pace like power walking showed beneficial associations for all of the health outcomes, over and above total daily steps.

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Woman with fitness watch. (Getty Images)
As well as step count, track your pace with the help of apps and fitness watches. (Getty Images)

“Step count is easily understood and widely used by the public to track activity levels thanks to the growing popularity of fitness trackers and apps, but rarely do people think about the pace of their steps," explained senior author Emmanuel Stamatakis, professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the University of Sydney.

“Findings from these studies could inform the first formal step-based physical activity guidelines and help develop effective public health programmes aimed at preventing chronic disease."

Researchers used data from the UK Biobank study to link the step count of 78,500 UK adults aged 40 to 79 with health outcomes seven years on, as published in journals Jama Internal Medicine and Jama Neurology.

Participants wore a wrist accelerometer, which measures factors like movement and acceleration, to assess physical activity for a minimum of three days out of a seven-day period, including a weekend day and monitoring during sleep periods.

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“The size and scope of these studies using wrist-worn trackers makes it the most robust evidence to date suggesting that 10,000 steps a day is the sweet spot for health benefits and walking faster is associated with additional benefits," said Dr Ahmadi.

“More research with longer-term use of trackers will shed more light on the health benefits associated with certain levels and intensity of daily stepping.”

Watch: Do you really need to take 10,000 steps per day?

In a nutshell, the quality of your walk might just be more important than how long you walk for. So, if the idea of pacing for hours is daunting, the good news is that even a brisk 10-minute daily walk has many health benefits, which counts towards your recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise, according to the NHS.

For those who want to get their speed up, it also explains that a brisk walk is roughly three miles an hour, faster than a stroll.

If you're still unsure, the website adds: "You can tell you're walking briskly if you can still talk but cannot sing the words to a song."

Other than giving that a go, using the free Active 10 app on your smartphone can tell you when you're walking fast enough, and help you fit some more speedy walking into your lifestyle.

Additional reporting by PA.