Most of us know that we should walk briskly for the sake of our health. But how fast is brisk?
A helpful new study of walking speed and health concludes that the answer seems to be about 100 steps per minute, a number that is probably lower than many of us might expect.
Current exercise guidelines almost always state that we should walk at a brisk pace rather than stroll leisurely. But the recommendations do not always define what brisk walking means and, when they do, can deploy daunting terminology or technicalities.
They may say, for instance, that brisk walking requires three metabolic equivalents of task, or METs, meaning that it uses about three times as much energy as sitting still.
Or they might tell us that brisk walking occurs at a pace that increases our heart rate until it reaches about 70% of our heart rate maximum, a measurement that few of us fully understand or have the heart rate monitor and mathematical acuity needed to track and parse those percentages.
Even the simplest, often-cited description of brisk walking can be vague and confusing. Used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies in their guidelines, it defines brisk walking (and other moderate-intensity activities) as occurring at a pace at which people can talk but not sing.
That definition seemed impractical to Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who has long studied how much exercise might be needed or sufficient for health.
“Who wants to sing when they walk?” she asks.
So, for the new study, which was published in June in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine devoted to the topic of walking, she and her colleagues decided to see whether there was enough data already available to develop a more precise and useful definition of brisk walking.
They began by looking for recent, good-quality published studies that had tracked people’s walking pace and cadence, which is the number of steps they take per minute, as well as other measures of their effort, such as heart rate or increases in respiration.
They wanted to see if there were consistencies between an easy-to-use number, such as steps per minute, and more technical determinations of intensity, such as respiration.
They also wanted to find studies that had examined people of varying ages and body mass indexes, to see if a single measure of what makes walking brisk could apply to almost everyone.
They wound up with 38 studies that had included hundreds of men and women ranging in age from 18 to elderly and of many different BMIs.
But despite the differences in the participants, the data about what made their walking brisk, or “moderate,” was consistent across all of the studies, Tudor-Locke and her colleagues found.
Brisk walking involved a pace of about 2.7 miles per hour. Or put more simply, it required about 100 steps per minute.
“This is a number that is very easy for any of us to measure on our own,” she says. “You do not need special equipment or expertise.”
Just count how many steps you take in 10 seconds and multiply that number by six, she says. Or count how many steps you take in six seconds and multiply by 10. Or count how many steps you take in a single minute and skip the multiplication altogether.
“The good news is that this pace will probably not feel strenuous to most healthy people,” she says.
There were some small variations among people in the precise number of steps per minute needed to achieve brisk walking in the various studies, Tudor-Locke says.
“For some people, it was 98; for others, 102,” she says. “But 100 steps per minute is a good rule of thumb for almost everyone.”
Unless you are past about age 60, she adds. The ideal steps per minute for brisk walking among older people were inconsistent in the studies that she and her colleagues reviewed.
Some older people needed to take quite a few more than 100 steps per minute to walk briskly, she says, while others achieved briskness with lower step cadences.
Tudor-Locke suspects that differing methodologies in the studies produced the differing results.
She and her colleagues plan soon to study older people and walking to pinpoint just how many steps per minute are needed for their pace to be brisk.
Tudor-Locke also says that knowing that 100 steps per minute makes our walking brisk does not mean that we should stop walking after taking 100 steps.
Volume remains important, she says.
The current federal exercise guidelines suggest 30 minutes of brisk walking most days, which would translate into 3,000 steps taken at the 100-steps-per-minute pace.
If you are ambitious, you also could ramp up the pace so that your walking becomes vigorous, she says, which is the technical term for more-draining exercise.
Vigorous walking requires about 130 steps per minute, she and her colleagues determined, a pace at which you still are walking. Jogging generally starts at about 140 steps per minute, she says.