A lifetime of brisk walking can make you feel 16 years younger by the time you reach midlife, scientists say.
University of Leicester researchers who studied the genes of 400,000 Britons found a clear link between walking faster and a reduced biological age.
Quicker participants – defined as those who walked quicker than 4mph – had longer telomeres, which are the ‘caps’ at the end of each chromosome.
They hold repetitive sequences of DNA that protect the chromosome from damage, similar to the way the cap at the end of a shoelace stops it from unravelling.
Each time a cell divides, these telomeres become shorter – until a point where they become so short the cell can no longer divide.
Scientists see the length of the telomere as a marker of biological age, independent of when someone was born, and linked to a range of symptoms we associate with ageing such as frailty.
Based on the results, the researchers estimate that a lifetime of brisk walking could reduce an individual’s biological age by as much as 16 years by midlife.
Women who walk two to three miles per hour are at a 27 per cent reduced risk of being diagnosed with heart failure than those who walk less than two miles per hour, a study of more than 25,000 women aged over-50 found. Pictured: stock of older people walking
Professor Tom Yates, physical activity expert and senior study author, said previous research has shown walking pace is a ‘very strong predictor’ of health status.
The new findings confirm that adopting a brisk walking pace ‘actually causes better health’ and is ‘likely to lead to a younger biological age’, he said.
The benefits of walking have been documented in dozens of studies.
Experts believe speedier walking is a marker of better musculoskeletal health, heart and lung fitness, activity levels, motivation and mental health.
HOW MUCH EXERCISE SHOULD I DO?
Adults aged 19 to 64 are advised to exercise daily.
The NHS says Britons should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity a week.
The advice is the same for disabled adults, pregnant women and new mothers.
Exercising just one or twice a week can reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke.
Moderate activity includes brisk walking, water aerobics, riding a bike, dancing, doubles tennis, pushing a lawn mower, hiking and rollerblading.
Vigorous exercise includes running, swimming, riding a bike fast or on hills, walking up stairs, as well as sports such as football, rugby, netball and hockey.
But the University of Leicester team said it was unclear whether walking pace is linked with biological age — how old your body seems based on how your chromosomes have changed over time.
They studied 405,981 Britons, aged 57 on average, included in the UK Biobank — a database of patients monitored for 10 years and includes genomic data.
Around half of the participants (212,303) self-reported an average walking pace, which is classed as three to four miles per hour.
One in 15 (26,835) reported a slow walking pace (less than three miles per hour), while four in 10 (166,843) said they were brisk walkers (more than four miles per hour).
They also gathered additional data from around 100,000 of the participants, who wore activity tracking devices on their wrists 24-hours per day for a week.
The findings, published in the journal Communications Biology, show faster walkers, regardless of how much they exercised, had longer telomere.
Scientists do not fully understand the link between telomere length and disease.
But a build-up of these cells is believed to contribute to frailty and age-related diseases, such as coronary artery disease and cancer.
Therefore, scientists consider the length of telomere — scientifically known as leucocyte telomere length (LTL) — to be a ‘strong marker’ of biological age, regardless of when a person was born.
The difference in LTL between fast and slow walkers is ‘equivalent to 16 years of age-related difference’, the team said.
Dr Paddy Dempsey, a human physiologist and lead author of the study, said the findings suggest those who have habitually slower walking speeds are at greater risk of chronic disease or unhealthy ageing.
As well as increasing overall walking to improve health, people should also aim to increase the number of steps they can complete in a given time, he said.
Dr Yates said: ‘Whilst we have previously shown that walking pace is a very strong predictor of health status, we have not been able to confirm that adopting a brisk walking pace actually causes better health.
‘In this study we used information contained in people’s genetic profile to show that a faster walking pace is indeed likely to lead to a younger biological age as measured by telomeres.’
A team from the university previously used UK Biobank data to show as little as 10 minutes of brisk walking a day is linked with longer life expectancy.
They have also found that brisk walkers have up to 20 years’ greater life expectancy compared to slow walkers.