According to a new study, walking at a certain pace may help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. (Credit: LeoPatrizi/E+/Getty Images)

(CNN) -- When it comes to walking and its effect on reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, it's not just how much you do it, but also how fast you move, according to a new study.

Brisk walking was linked to a nearly 40 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life, according to research published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

"Previous studies have indicated that frequent walking was associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the general population, such that those who spent more time walking per day had a lower risk," said lead study author Dr. Ahmad Jayedi, a research assistant at the Research Center on Social Determinants of Health at Semnan University of Medical Sciences in Iran.

However, previous findings did not offer many guidelines on optimal walking speed to reduce diabetes risk, and comprehensive reviews of the evidence are lacking, the authors said.

The study reviewed 10 previous research, conducted between 1999 and 2022, that evaluated the links between walking speed (which was measured with objective timed tests or subjective participant reports) and the development of type 2 diabetes among adults in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

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After an average eight-year follow-up period, compared to a simple or casual walk, those who walked at an average or normal pace had a 15% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the researchers found. Walking at a "fairly fast" pace meant a 24% lower risk than those who walked casually. And "brisk walking or strides had the biggest benefit: a 39% risk reduction.

A simple or casual walk was defined as less than 3.2 kilometers per hour. The average or normal pace was defined as 3.2 to 4.8 kilometers per hour. A "fairly fast" pace was 4.8 to 6.4 kilometers per hour. And the "brisk walk/stride" was more than 6.4 kilometers per hour. Each kilometer increase in walking speed above the fast category was associated with a 9% lower risk of developing the disease.

The fact that faster walking may be more beneficial isn't surprising, but the researchers' "ability to quantify walking speed and incorporate it into their analysis is interesting," Dr. Robert Gabbay, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, said via email. Gabbay was not involved in the study.

The research also reiterates the idea that "intensity is important for diabetes prevention," Dr. Carmen Cuthbertson, an assistant professor of education and health promotion at East Carolina University, who was not involved in the study, said in an email. "Engaging in any amount of physical activity can have health benefits, but it seems that to prevent diabetes it's important to engage in some higher-intensity activities, such as brisk walking, to get the most benefit."

Understanding the Benefits of Brisk Walking

The study doesn't prove cause-and-effect, Gabbay said, but "one can imagine that more vigorous exercise could result in better fitness, reduced body weight, and thereby improve insulin resistance and reduce the risk of diabetes."

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Dr. Michio Shimabukuro, professor and chairman of the department of diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism at Fukushima Medical University School of Medicine, agreed, adding that "higher exercise intensity as a result of higher walking speed can result in greater stimulation of physiological functions and better health." Shimabukuro was not involved in the study.

Walking speed may also simply reflect health status, meaning healthier people are likely to walk faster, said Dr. Borja del Pozo Cruz, a senior health researcher at the University of Cadiz in Spain, who was not involved in the research.

"There is a high risk of reverse causality, (in which) health deficits are more likely to explain the observed outcomes," del Pozo Cruz added. "We need randomized controlled trials to confirm, or not, the observed results."

Reduce the risk of diabetes

The overall message "is that walking is an important way to improve health," Gabbay said. "It may be true that walking faster is even better. But given that most Americans don't walk enough in the first place, it's very important to encourage people to walk as much as they can."

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However, if you want to challenge yourself, using a fitness tracker (via a watch or smartphone app) can help you objectively measure and maintain your walking pace, experts said.

If you can't get your hands on a fitness tracker, an easy alternative to detecting exercise intensity is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "talk test," which is based on understanding how physical activity affects heart rate and breathing. If you can speak in a choked voice while walking but can't sing, your pace is probably quick.

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