I spend a lot of time at Lake Merritt, down the road from my apartment in Oakland, California. An adjacent footpath circumnavigates the lake and is exactly 3.1 miles long. If I’m out there on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, I inevitably bump into Ken. It’s impossible not to. Ken, an older gentleman with thin white hair down to his shoulders who always wears gray cotton shorts, a faded sweatshirt, and New Balance shoes that are falling apart, walks three laps around the lake—or 9.3 miles—on each of those days.
Earlier this year, I stopped my run to ask Ken his age. “Ninety-something,” he replied. When I asked him his secret, how he’s still doing what he’s doing, he told me it’s what he’s always been doing. “I’ve been walking out here for years and years,” he said. “You’ve just got to keep moving.”
Ken was dropping some serious fitness wisdom.
It’s easy to get excited about the latest and greatest trends, from high-intensity interval training to ultramarathons to triathlons to powerlifting. But at the end of the day, regular brisk walking gets you most, if not all of the way there—“there” meaning a long and healthy life. This is the main conclusion from the June volume of the prestigious British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM), a special edition dedicated exclusively to walking.
“Whether it is a stroll on a sunny day, walking to and from work, or walking down to the local shops, the act of putting one foot in front of the other in a rhythmic manner is as much human nature as breathing, thinking and loving,” write researchers Emmanuel Stamatakis, Mark Hamer, and Marie Murphy in an editorial in the journal.
The main study in the BJSM special edition surveyed more than 50,000 walkers in the United Kingdom—a variety of ages, both men and women—and found that regularly walking at an average, brisk, or fast pace was associated with a 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality and a 24 percent reduction in the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. All the data was self-reported. Participants were asked how frequently they walked and whether they would describe their usual pace as “slow,” “average,” “fairly brisk,” or “fast.” Though self-reported data like this is often viewed as a weakness, in this case it may actually be a strength. This is because “slow” versus “brisk” for a 30-year-old is different than “slow” versus “brisk” for a 70-year-old. In other words, what the researchers were really measuring was rate of perceived exertion, or how hard people felt they were walking. This method is proven to be an effective way to gauge effort and intensity during exercise. “A very simple way to grasp what a ‘brisk’ pace is in terms of exertion is to imagine it as a pace that gets you out of breath when it is sustained for more than a few minutes,” says Stamatakis, lead author on the study and professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney, Australia.
Another study, published earlier this year in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, examined nearly 140,000 men and women in the United States and came to the same conclusion. Engaging in at least 150 minutes per week of brisk walking was linked to a 20 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.
A common challenge to these big, population-wide studies is that they don’t measure causation. While regular walking promotes good health, it could also be that you can’t walk regularly or briskly if you’re not in good health. However, Stamatakis points out that he and his team “went to great lengths to reduce the possibility of participants’ existing health status determining their walking pace.” They excluded all participants who died within two years of follow-up (a proxy for someone who may have been sick during the study period) and anyone who had cardiovascular disease when the study began. They also adjusted their results to control for participants who had other preexisting medical conditions. When you combine this with the fact that many smaller studies designed as randomized controlled trials—meaning some subjects are assigned to walk and others aren’t—show that walking causes improvements in health, you can start to be pretty confident that walking leads to good health, not the other way around.
Walking has also been compared to more intense forms of exercise, like running. Though experts believe running may be marginallybetter for you, that’s only if you don’t get injured and manage to run regularly, something that more than 50 percent of runners (myself included) struggle with.
The point is this: If you enjoy and are able to stick to more strenuous forms of physical activity, by all means, do those. But if you find yourself frequently injured or begin to feel that you just don’t need the voluntary pain that comes with crushing yourself in the gym or on the track, there’s no need to despair. Most anyone anywhere can walk briskly for 30 to 45 minutes a day and achieve loads of health benefits. And if you do it regularly over the course your lifetime, there’s pretty compelling evidence that it just might be the only exercise you need.
Another big upside of walking is that it isn’t just good for you—it’s also good for your entire community. “Walking in the local community promotes opportunities for social interaction,” Stamatakis says. “Well-connected communities are happier and healthier.”
All of this makes me think ninety-something Ken really does have it figured out. He walks regularly, he walks at a pace that feels challenging for him, and he walks in his community, smiling and waving to people like me. He might not know it, but Ken’s got one of the best health and fitness regimens there is.
This post first appeared in Brad’s “Do It Better” column at Outside Magazine.