Brisk walking – what is it and do you really need to go fast?

It can add years to your life, boost your brainpower and trim your waistline – how to step up the pace with brisk walking.

Did you know that an 11-minute brisk walk every day could prevent one in 10 early deaths? Research has shown it can also boost your brainpower, trim your waist and improve your mood.

But what is brisk walking? How fast do you have to go and is it the same speed for everyone? We’ve got the expert advice on how to transform a stroll into something that, according to the experts, could save your life.

A woman using walking poles striding towards the camera on a path through woodlandCredit: Shutterstock / SeventyFour

Why brisk walking is so good for you

Longer life expectancy is just the start

When we talk about walking, it can mean so many different things. It can describe those few steps from our sofa to our fridge, a gentle stroll with friends, or even a 10-mile, pulse-raising stride out across hills and mountains.

Any movement is good for you and there are many benefits of walking, but the facts are that the faster you walk, the more health benefits you derive from it. Scientific research includes a 2019 study that found that brisk walkers had a longer life expectancy, and research in 2018 that revealed three hours of brisk walking per week boosts your brainpower. While another study concluded it improves cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone in older people.


Walking is associated with a longer and healthier life

A British and Australian study last year concluded that one in 10 early deaths could be prevented if everyone managed just 11 minutes of brisk walking a day.

One of the study’s authors, Dr Paddy Dempsey, lecturer and research fellow at the University of Leicester and Deakin University in Australia, told Saga Exceptional: “In terms of longevity, regular physical activity, including walking, is associated with a longer and healthier life. Even small amounts of daily walking can contribute to a healthier ageing process, by reducing the risk of chronic diseases and maintaining physical and mental function.

“Brisk walking elevates the heart rate and increases the intensity of the activity, leading to more significant cardiovascular stimulation and more benefits.”

What is brisk walking?

Not quite a jog

Put simply, brisk walking is faster than regular walking but not as fast as jogging or running. It should be fast enough to elevate your heart rate and breathing, but you should still be able to hold a conversation without getting too breathless.

Dr Dempsey says: “For most people, walking at a brisk pace – where you can still talk but not sing – is a good target.

“It is important to consider individual factors such as age, baseline fitness level and health conditions. If someone is just starting out with walking after a period of inactivity, or has certain health or functional limitations, even a leisurely stroll can still provide health benefits.”

How do you brisk walk?

Technique is more important than speed

Joanna Hall is a qualified sport scientist and founder of the WalkActive programme used by many GPs across the UK. She says that many people try to rush when they walk to get fit, which can cause more harm than good.

Hall told Saga Exceptional: “When people think about walking faster, they think they should be moving their legs as quickly as possible, so they try to rush, lean forwards and often end up with back problems.

“You need to get your technique right to align all your muscles, so that when you are walking they can stretch out like a rubber band.

“Keep your head up, don’t lean forward and let your arms swing back to open up your posture and create a good rhythm.

“Then think about the position of your hips, keep your pelvis lifted so your legs can actually move, and then peel and lift your back foot off the ground with every stride.”

How fast is brisk walking?

Get ready to up your steps per minute

2018 study defined brisk walking at a minimum of 100 steps per minute, a figure Hall agrees with.

She says: “You need to be doing at least 100 steps to have a health fitness benefit, and if you want to be getting more of a cardiovascular benefit, then you need to be pushing up to 130 steps per minute.

“As your technique gets better you will get faster through your length of stride. It shouldn’t feel like you are forcing it. In my experience, 120 steps per minute is a good cadence to build up to.”


How to measure your speed

Fitness trackers are your friend

The easiest way to measure your speed is with a step counter or fitness tracker. Check out our guide to the best budget fitness trackers to get started.

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But Hall warns not to get too caught up with counting the number of steps you take. “It will be different for everyone,” she warns. “A fit 50-year-old won’t be taking the same number of steps per minute as a 90-year-old for the same benefit. We are all different and we all have our own optimum speed.”

She says there are three easy ways, without counting your steps, to check you are walking briskly. These are:

1. Breathing

You should be slightly out of breath, so you could chat to your friend but not be able to sing or recite a Shakespeare monologue without stopping and catching your breath.

2. Sniff test

When you finish your session you should feel a bit damp, a little sweaty. You’ll want to wash your top rather than wear it again.

3. Score yourself

Give your breathing a rating of between zero and 10. Zero is deep relaxed breathing and 10 is gasping for breath. If you want to get a cardiovascular benefit then you need to be aiming above five and ideally around six or seven.

If you have any preexisting health conditions or concerns, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

How often should I go brisk walking?

Make brisk walking a regular habit

Hall recommends fitting in at least four sessions a week to get the most benefit, and says she’s seen first-hand the transformation that brisk walking can bring about.

“We work with GPs, patients and individuals, and see significant improvements in their cardiovascular fitness, with their breathing. We also see them changing shape and toning up as the weeks go by,” she says.

“Just remember to take it at your own pace, don’t force the speed and always focus on the positives. However fast you go, just by walking you will be benefiting your health and your wellbeing.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV.

Her passion is outdoor fitness. She’s a trainee mountain leader; an Ordnance Survey Champion; she organises walks and instructional events for South Wales members of online community the Adventure Queens and she’s vice chair of the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park Local Access Forum.

She hated sports at school and only started getting the fitness bug as she reached her 50s. Now she loves mountain walking, trail runs, e-biking, paddleboarding and climbing. She also loves cake.

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