Study finds that people 60 or older who walk at an average pace had a 46 percent reduction in risk of early death from heart disease, and fast-paced walkers had a 53 percent reduction. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

You might want to pick up the pace when you head out for a stroll, suggests a new study that found that doing so may lengthen your life.

In fact, compared with a slow pace, walking at an average pace appeared to reduce the risk of dying early 20 percent, while a faster pace seemed to cut the risk by 24 percent, the researchers said.

“A fast pace is generally five to seven kilometres [three to four miles] per hour, but it really depends on a walker’s fitness levels; an alternative indicator is to walk at a pace that makes you slightly out of breath or sweaty when sustained,” said researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis. He’s from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Center and School of Public Health, in Australia.

The researchers also found that people seemed to cut their risk of dying early from heart disease by 24 percent by walking at an average pace and 21 percent by walking at a fast pace, compared with walking at a slow pace.

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Our Take

To encourage us to make walking and exercise a priority, Thomas Boyden, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group preventive cardiologist, details the many ways physical activity can make our lives better.

His top 10 reasons to exercise can provide a little motivational boost to put down the smartphone and pick up the pace.

Routine exercise:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Lowers blood sugar
  • Helps control cholesterol
  • Builds bone strength
  • Helps prevent dementia
  • Fights depression, stress and anxiety
  • Improves balance
  • Reduces risk for heart attack and stroke
  • Aids weight control
  • Helps you sleep better

Exercise does not have to mean running a marathon, Dr. Boyden said. But it should involve activity more vigorous than a leisurely stroll.

Moreover, the benefit of brisk walking was particularly pronounced among older adults.

Those 60 or over who walked at an average pace had a 46 percent reduction in risk of early death from heart disease, and fast-paced walkers had a 53 percent reduction, the report suggested.

But the researchers did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between walking pace and premature death risk, just that there was an association.

For the study, Stamatakis and colleagues analyzed death records and linked them with the results of 11 surveys in England and Scotland between 1994 and 2008. In those surveys, people reported their walking pace.

The researchers adjusted these findings for factors such as the amount and intensity of all physical activity, age, sex and body mass index (a measurement based on height and weight).

“While sex and body mass index did not appear to influence outcomes, walking at an average or fast pace was associated with a significantly reduced risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease. There was no evidence to suggest pace had a significant influence on cancer mortality, however,” Stamatakis said in a university news release.

“These analyses suggest that increasing walking pace may be a straightforward way for people to improve heart health and risk for premature mortality,” he added.

“Especially in situations when walking more isn’t possible due to time pressures or a less walking-friendly environment, walking faster may be a good option to get the heart rate up—one that most people can easily incorporate into their lives,” Stamatakis said.

The report was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.