Walking is an easy way to get active and stay active. It's a cardio exercise that can help us live a healthier life by maintaining a healthy weight, strengthening our bones and muscles, and even preventing and managing conditions, including heart disease. Your walking speed can say a lot about your physical fitness, and a recent study found it can also predict the likelihood of dying from heart disease.

Middle-age adults who were slow walkers were about twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to fast walkers during the study period. 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. In addition, slow walkers also had low fitness levels; this could explain their higher risk of heart disease death.

The findings, published in the European Heart Journal, held true even after researchers accounted for factors like exercise habits, diets, and whether people smoked or drank alcohol.

"This suggests habitual walking pace is an independent predictor of heart-related death," said Professor Tom Yates, principal investigator of the study and a reader in physical activity, sedentary behavior and health at the University of Leicester, in a statement.

Yates and his colleagues analyzed data collected by the UK Biobank between 2006 and 2010 on about half a million middle-aged people in the UK. At the beginning of the study, over 420,000 people were free from cancer and heart disease. After the six-year followup, there were 8,598 deaths: an estimated 1,654 died from heart disease and 4,850 from cancer. The researchers also analyzed actual handgrip strength via dynamometer to determine if it was a good predictor of cancer or heart-related deaths. However, no consistent link was found between walking speed and cancer-related deaths nor handgrip strength and heart and cancer-related deaths.

Interestingly, a 2013 study has found blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease, can influence our walking speed. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington in Seattle discovered people with high blood pressure had a significantly slower pace than people with normal blood pressure. Moreover, the slowing of their walking speed happened at a faster rate than the normal blood pressure group. Researchers could not establish a cause and effect relationship since they couldn't identify why high blood pressure would slow a person's walking speed.

Walking and other forms of exercise can prevent problems and manage heart health. Previous research has found people who did moderate exercise, whether walking or riding a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes three times a week, had a 26 percent reduction in the risk of death from heart disease and a 20 percent reduction in the overall death rate. This is because walking helps improve cardiac risk factors, including cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, vascular stiffness and inflammation, and mental stress.

Currently, the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine suggests able-bodied adults engage in moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, for at least 30 minutes, five days each week, or intense aerobic exercise, like running, for at least 20 minutes three days each week.

It seems like our walking pace is an indicator of our overall fitness and health.

Source: Yates T, Zaccardi F, Dhalwani NN et al. Association of walking pace and handgrip strength with all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: a UK Biobank observational study. European Heart Journal. 2017.