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Researchers analyzed data from 420,727 middle-aged adults in the U.K. They found that over a six-year period, those with a slower walking pace were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who were brisk walkers.
Those with a low body mass index (BMI) faced the highest risk, which suggests people who were malnourished or had high levels of muscle tissue loss with age were more susceptible, the researcher say. In addition, slow walkers also had low fitness levels, which researchers say could explain their higher risk of heart disease death.
The researchers also analyzed handgrip strength to determine if it was a good predictor of cancer or heart-related deaths. No consistent link was found between walking speed and cancer-related deaths or between handgrip strength and heart- and cancer-related deaths.
The findings, published in European Heart Journal, held true even after researchers accounted for factors like exercise habits, diets and whether people smoked or drank alcohol.
Fitness and strength as predictors
The results reflect what experts have known for a long time: Our fitness and strength levels can help predict our overall risk of developing heart disease, says preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD. Dr. Ahmed did not take part in the study.
“The study found that people who were brisk walkers had significantly lower cardiac and all-cause death, which makes sense, because those people have higher cardiorespiratory fitness,” Dr. Ahmed says.
There’s no way of knowing if people walk faster because they’re more fit, or if faster walking leads to better fitness, but previous research has shown that increasing a person’s fitness level ultimately helps their heart health, he says.
If you find you are walking slower than you used to, or if you feel like you’re losing strength over time, let your doctor know, as this may be a subtle symptom of heart disease, Dr. Ahmed says. Otherwise, consider increasing your exercise level to benefit of your overall health.
“We tend to lose our muscle mass after age 40 by approximately one percent per year every year,” Dr. Ahmed says. “If you feel like you aren’t as strong as you used to be, and you know that you haven’t been doing resistance training, it’s definitely something to incorporate into your exercise routine.”
It’s always a good idea to check in with a doctor before starting a new exercise routine, he says.
Complete results of the study can be found in the European Heart Journal.