Want to take a simple step towards getting fitter? Walk fast

The older you are, the more likely walking will increase your fitness, says Dr William Bird
Lebby Eyres

SINCE the beginning of the pandemic, there has been one pastime that people have been able to indulge in more than normal: walking.

Survey have shown that many people have been walking more than normal, and that it's one lockdown habit that people intend to keep up. But is walking alone enough to keep us fit? The answer is it can be – depending on how fast you go.

"Nothing will give you quite the benefit that brisk walking does unless it's running – and it's as good as running," says Thomas Yates, a professor in physical activity, sedentary behaviour and health at the University of Leicester.

In fact, Professor Yates recently published a study which demonstrated that the speed at which you walk is a good indicator of how fit you are.

"Fast walkers can live up to 20 years longer," he says. "It improves cardiovascular fitness, which is a measure of how efficient your heart is, and your ability to utilise oxygen, which is an indicator of fitness."

That's true even if you feel only slightly breathless afterwards. Prof Yates's study revealed that the pace we walk can even indicate our chance of fending off infections such as Covid-19.

The results, in the International Journal of Obesity, found that slow walkers (defined as going at under 3mph) are 2.5 times more likely to develop severe Covid-19, and 3.75 times more likely to die from it than faster walkers – even among those of a healthy weight.

"If you're a fast walker with a high BMI [body mass index], your risk is still lower than for slow walkers with healthy lifestyle behaviours," he said.

But just how fast is brisk walking? "Three miles an hour or 100 steps a minute is the minimum: you get the greatest benefit increasing your pace from slow to steady (3mph to 4mph), but there is increased benefit over 4mph," says Prof Yates. A simple pedometer can help determine your walking speed.

"Fast walking will build your gastrocnemius [calf muscle], quadriceps [thigh muscles] and core muscles, which will increase your resting metabolic rate, and targets unhealthy visceral fat, which pumps out toxic chemicals around the stomach," says GP Dr William Bird.

The reason for this is that fast walking, which is a form of low to moderate intensity exercise, burns fat, while vigorous activity utilises carbohydrates.

Walking can also build aerobic fitness – in other words, heart and lung strength. But to achieve this we need to exercise to at least 40 per cent of our capacity. This is where another measure comes in useful. The metabolic equivalent of a task (MET) tells you how much harder it will make your body work than when you are at rest.

The higher the MET of an activity, the more it helps you build aerobic fitness. (MET is the ratio between the amount of oxygen we consume at rest and the amount we consume when we are exercising.)

Activities have fixed MET values. Walking briskly has a MET value of four, while running at 6mph has a value of almost 10 – but our individual maximum MET capacity varies according to our fitness level and age.

For an average 20-year-old woman this maximum is 12.1 MET, compared with 8.2 for a woman aged 50.

"If you have a maximum capacity MET of eight, walking – with its MET value of four – means you'll be exercising at 50 per cent of your maximum, which will get you out of breath," says Dr Bird. "But if you have a MET capacity of 15, you will be able to walk for hours. The older you are, the more likely walking will increase your fitness."

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