Are you a slow walker? Here's what it could mean for your health

A new study links walking speed with heart health in ways we never imagined

A new study links walking speed with heart health in ways we never imagined

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This article was originally published September 27th, 2017.

Walking down a city sidewalk or through a crowded mall, we've all been stuck behind an obnoxiously slow walker. You know, someone whose paltry promenade grinds public movement to a halt. We've got somewhere to be, and they're walking around as though they're perusing an art gallery. In addition to public scorn, these slow walkers may be risking something else: their health. As a comprehensive new study has found, there may be a link between your walking speed and your chances of getting heart disease.

The study was conducted as part of a partnership of UK hospitals and universities under the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre and aimed to examine the prevalence of predictive links between general behaviours and the risk of developing cancer or heart disease. Researchers compiled UK Biobank data, which was taken between 2006 and 2010, covering almost half a million middle-aged participants. Of that set of data, researchers eliminated participants who already had cancer or heart disease at the time the data was collected to avoid skewing correlation, leaving 420,727 participants to study. In addition to general health and BMI calculations, the data also contained behavioural information on each participant, such as general walking speed (slow, steady or brisk), amount of television watched, smoking habits and hand grip strength. Between the time the data was collected and the time the study was published (a little over six years), 8598 of the study's participants had passed away. 1654 of those deaths were due to heart disease and 4850 were from cancer.

The findings uncovered that slow walkers were about two times as likely to develop cardiovascular conditions compared to those who typically walked briskly. This correlation held strong between both men and women in the study, and researchers were unable to explain away the link using other behavioural information, giving credence to walking speed as an independent predictor of heart disease. Before we all start walking as fast as we can, it's important to note that researchers believe walking speed is simply an indicator of general fitness, not a behavioural end in itself. They've also concluded that, due to their findings, a slower walking pace can be used as a flag to indicate that an individual has a poorer overall physical fitness, and is thus a prime candidate for cardiovascular disease (amongst other things), citing a need for greater physical health. The connections between walking pace and cancer were not statistically significant enough to cite a relationship.

Delving into more and more (seemingly trivial) behaviours is a great method for determining risky health indicators. We've all had death or poor health befall someone we know who we think is in "perfect health", because we naively assume that only egregiously reckless behaviour leads to such results. And given that, it's entirely reasonable that everyday behaviour can (and should) be used as red flags. Another recent study discovered a link between contracting shingles and being at a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, while Toronto researchers have found that those living in northern Ontario could generally be at a higher risk of those same conditions, and even something as seemingly normal as shoveling heavy snowfall can produce heart health warnings.

All of this information at once may seem maddening, but it's actually very encouraging. The more red flags and independent predictors researchers can find between behaviour and health risks, the better able we can be at avoiding, diagnosing early and successfully managing such diseases. Though this current and future research can lead us down many different paths toward better heart health, the important thing is that it's continuing to spark a national conversation, helping us to better understand the ways in which we can keep our lifestyles — and our hearts — up to speed.