Walking faster is linked to a significantly lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to the first global study of its kind.
Type 2 diabetes is one of the world’s major health threats, with its prevalence rising sharply in the last three decades, according to the World Health Organization.
More than 537 million people have been diagnosed, but millions more are estimated to be in the dark about the fact they have the condition. It is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation.
Researchers have known for years that walking – and doing so frequently – is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Until now, though it has remained unclear what walking speed is needed to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Now a worldwide analysis of studies shows that a brisk walk or striding is better for reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes that walking at a slower pace. The pooled data analysis of the available evidence was published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Researchers found people who walked faster than 1.86mph (3km/h) were less likely to develop the condition, while those with a speedier stride of more than 3.7mph (6km/h) lowered their risk by 39%.
While physical activity is known to be associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Medical Sciences in Iran and Oslo New University College in Norway wanted to figure out the optimal walking speed.
The team looked at 10 studies published between 1999 and 2022, which included follow-up periods of between three and 11 years. A total of 508,121 adult patients from across the UK, Japan and the US were included..
Compared with strolling at less than 3km/h, an average or normal walking speed of 3-5km/h was associated with a 15% lower risk of type 2 diabetes – irrespective of the time spent walking.
The risk reduced even further with a faster pace, with a fairly brisk walk of between 5km/h and 6km/h associated with a 24% lower risk.
Those who walked at a speed of higher than 6km/h had a 39% lower risk of developing the condition.
“While current strategies to increase total walking time are beneficial, it may also be reasonable to encourage people to walk at faster speeds to further increase the health benefits of walking,” researchers said.
There were some limitations to the research. Three studies included were rated as having a moderate risk of bias, while the remaining seven were rated as having a serious risk.
The researchers also acknowledged that people with a faster walking speed are more likely to be fitter, with greater muscle mass and better overall health.
But there are plausible explanations for the findings, they explained.
Walking speed is an important indicator of overall health and a key indicator of functional capacity.
Faster walking speed is associated with better cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength, both of which are linked to diabetes risk – and brisk walking is good for weight loss, which helps to improve insulin sensitivity.
Neil Gibson, senior physical activity adviser at Diabetes UK, welcomed the findings.
He said the “study highlights what we already know, that being physically active, which can include brisk walking, can help lower a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes and that increasing the intensity of activity, such as by walking faster, gives greater overall health benefits”.
“We welcome further research to confirm whether, and to what extent, picking up the pace boosts the positive effects walking can have on reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“Walking is cost-free, simple and for most people can be integrated into regular activities like getting to work, shopping and visiting friends.
“While progressing to a faster pace is usually recommended for greater health gains, it’s important that people walk at a pace that they can manage and is suitable for them.”