The importance of exercise for good health and general well-being cannot be overemphasized, especially for those who exercise outside, even for short periods. Walking has long been known to offer proven benefits for mental and physical health and longevity. Regardless of your pace, it is one of the well-researched strategies to improve your mood, increase your energy, and prevent numerous diseases. According to research, walking has been shown to increase heart rate and blood flow, help relieve pain and muscle pains, reduce stress and depression, and improve heart health.
And yet another recent study conducted by scientists from the University of Leicester has suggested that walking at a brisk pace could slow down biological aging processes.
A report published in the journal Communications Biology on Wednesday has shown a definite correlation exists between walking pace and a genetic marker of biological age. The Leicester-based team believes that a lifetime of brisk walking could reduce signs of aging by as much as 16 years by midlife, confirming a causal relationship between leukocyte telomere length (LTL) and walking pace.
While the mental, social, physical, and health benefits of walking are well-known, this is the first study to compare genetic data, self-reported walking speeds, and accurate measurements of movement intensity from wearable activity tracking devices worn by research subjects.
According to Dr. Paddy Dempsey, a lecturer and research fellow at the University of Leicester and lead author of the study, “Conflicting results and unavailability of high-quality data have hampered previous studies on the relationship between walking pace, telomere length, and physical activity.” He added, “This research uses genetic data to provide stronger evidence for a correlation between faster walking pace and longer telomere length.” He continues, “Data from wrist-worn wearable – activity-tracking devices used to measure persistent physical exercise – also backed a stronger role of regular activity intensity, like walking faster, in relation to telomere length.”
Researchers from the Leicester Biomedical Research Centre and the University of Leicester examined the genetic data of 405,981 middle-aged UK Biobank participants between March 2006 and July 2010. They measured telomeres, a critical marker of cellular health, and compared self-reported data from conventional wearable activity trackers to assess the walking pace of subjects exhibiting evidence of biological aging. Approximately half of the participants in the study indicated they walked at a moderate/consistent pace.
Over 6% of the subjects who took part in the study said they walked slowly; 41% said they walked at a fast pace. Slow was defined as less than 3 miles per hour, steady/average was defined as 3–4 miles per hour, and brisk was defined as greater than 4 miles per hour.
What is Leukocyte telomere length (LTL)
Leukocyte telomere length (LTL) is a biological age indicator.
They are “caps” at the ends of chromosomes that contain repeated non-coding DNA sequences protecting the chromosome from degradation.
These telomeres get shorter whenever a cell divides until they’re so short that the cell can’t divide any longer. On the other hand, researchers linked Brisk walking to longer telomeres. Although the connection between diseases and telomere length isn’t entirely understood, the accumulation of these senescent cells is thought to have a role in various aging symptoms, including frailty and age-related disorders.
The researchers found that people with a habitually faster walking pace (more than three miles an hour), independent of physical activity, have significantly longer LTL than slow walkers. They also found some health risks associated with slow walkers that prevented them from walking faster such as obesity.
The benefits appeared to be related to the intensity of the activity instead of the total number of steps or the length of time spent walking. Based on the findings, the scientists anticipate that a lifetime of brisk walking could reduce an individual’s biological age by almost 16 years by midlife.
“This shows that slower walking speed can be used to identify those who are at a higher risk of unhealthy aging or chronic medical condition. Similarly, activity intensity may play a vital role in optimizing interventions,” Dempsey told Science Daily.”
“If you have the capability, rather than significantly increasing your walking pace, you could try to improve the number of steps you take per time, such as walking swiftly to the bus stop, though it necessitates further examination, ” said Dr. Dempsey.
This is important research as it helps inform the general populace and health officials on who may be more at risk. Study after study has shown that people who choose to walk outside may be able to reap additional health benefits.
Scientists from the University of Leicester previously identified that as little as 10 minutes of fast walking per day is connected with longevity and that brisk walkers have a lifespan of 20 + years longer than slow walkers, using UK Biobank data.
But the researchers did not go so far as to conclude that brisk walking promotes better health. They were only able to establish a link.
In a press statement, Tom Yates, senior author o the study, said, “Although we have already shown that walking pace is a very good indicator of health status, we have not been able to verify that embracing a brisk walking pace actually yields better health.” In this study, we used information from people’s genetic profiles to show that a faster walking pace can lower aging as measured by telomeres.”
“Most people understand that nature favors us,” psychologist Joti Samra told The Weather Network in 2019, “but many people don’t know there’s an increase in studies that show it genuinely impacts things like our biochemistry and our brain chemistry favorably.”
“Our blood pressure drops, our heart rate slows, and we become more aware of our surroundings, all of which positively impact our lives,” he continued.
Exactly how many steps should you do per day?
You don’t have to walk 20,000 steps every day to experience good results. Different studies suggest the advantages of walking occur on a spectrum – with as few as 4,400 steps daily linked to longevity. Mayo Clinic has said 30 minutes of physical activity is generally recommended daily. For instance, you can split the 30 minutes into three 10-minute walks or increase progressively.