New Research: Here’s How Fast You Need to Walk to Protect Against Type 2 Diabetes

Updated: Jan. 25, 2024

Hitting your daily step count might not be as important for your health as how fast your stride is.

The popularity of wearable step trackers and the widespread goal of achieving the coveted 10,000-step target daily indicate that many of us have embraced the message: Walking is beneficial for overall health. This low-impact activity, requiring no special equipment beyond a sturdy pair of sneakers, enhances heart health, lung capacity, and weight management while helping prevent several age-related diseases, including type 2 diabetes. Notably, these advantages come without the risk of joint injuries associated with more strenuous activities. However, is the daily step count the sole important metric, or should we consider another factor for optimal health?

On November 28, 2023, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published the results of a pooled data analysis of various studies that investigated the impact of walking speed on the risk of type 2 diabetes. This study, comprising analyses from 10 different studies and pooled statistics from over 500,000 people in the U.S., Japan, and the U.K., revealed that both “fairly brisk walking” and “striding walking” were associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, independent of the time spent walking.

Researchers found the following relationships between walking speed and the reduction of type 2 diabetes risk:

  • 2-3 miles per hour (mph) pace: 15% reduction in risk
  • 3-4 mph pace (fairly brisk): 24% reduction in risk
  • 4 mph pace (just below jogging): 39% reduction in risk

Notably, the time spent walking was not a decisive factor; instead, each increase in speed of 1 kilometer per hour (kph)—slightly over 0.5 mph—correlated with a 9% reduction in risk. Speeds exceeding 4 kph—about 2.5 mph—were associated with a lower risk of the disease.

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While the researchers couldn’t definitively establish a causal link between walking and the prevention of type 2 diabetes, the correlation was clear. Walking at increased speeds correlated with better fitness levels and higher muscle tone, known to help ward off type 2 diabetes. Additionally, individuals who pushed themselves to walk faster were more likely to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, improving insulin sensitivity—factors crucial in preventing type 2 diabetes.

Given that time did not emerge as a significant factor, the researchers suggest that encouraging people to walk at faster speeds could enhance the health benefits of walking, beyond simply increasing total walking time or hitting a specific step count. “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,” they concluded. 

Before embarking on any new fitness regimen, it’s crucial to consult with your healthcare provider to assess your current fitness level. Once approved, lace up those sneakers and consider picking up the pace a bit. While smartphone and wearable trackers can provide your average speed, walking at a pace that elevates your heart rate is easy to recognize. Natasha Trentacosta, MD, a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, advises aiming for a speed that has you breathing a little harder than usual.  “You want to be able to talk and speak, but not sing,” she says. For beginners, varying the intensity is encouraged to provide the body with occasional breaks. Check out this great interval walking workout as a good starting point.