Slow walkers about 4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 — even if they’re in shape

LEICESTER, United Kingdom — Over the last year, people have tried to stay one step ahead of COVID-19 while in public. A recent study finds many of them may have to pick up the pace, literally. Researchers from the University of Leicester say people who walk at a slow pace, especially if they are overweight, are at significantly greater risk of contracting and dying from coronavirus.

Their report finds certain individuals who walk slowly are almost four times more likely to die of COVID. Even people who at a normal weight are not immune, according to researchers.

Slim people who walk slowly are nearly two and a half times more likely to contract a severe COVID infection. Their vulnerability to the virus is even worse than fast walkers who are obese.

Feeling the need for (walking) speed

The British team based their findings on 412,596 middle-aged participants from the UK Biobank. That survey provides genetic and health information on nearly half a million people in the U.K.

The analysis revealed death rates soared by 3.75 times among people of normal weight who usually walk at a slow pace — less than three miles an hour. For comparison, faster walkers clock in at over four miles an hour. Moreover, researchers find cases where patients have severe symptoms of COVID-19 increase by 2.5 times among slower walkers.

“We know already that obesity and frailty are key risk factors for COVID-19 outcomes,” lead author Tom Yates says in a university release.

“This is the first study to show that slow walkers have a much higher risk of contracting severe COVID-19 outcomes, irrespective of their weight,” the professor of physical activity, sedentary behavior and health continues. “With the pandemic continuing to put unprecedented strain on health care services and communities, identifying individuals at greatest risk and taking preventative measures to protect them is crucial.”

How fast you walk can reveal how healthy are you

Yates’ team examined relative links between BMI (body mass index) and self-reported walking pace with the risks of severe COVID-19 infection and death during the study. The results reveal a “uniformly high” connection in both normal weight and obese slow walkers.

Fast walkers have been shown to generally have good cardiovascular and heart health, making them more resilient to external stressors, including viral infection but this hypothesis has not yet been established for infectious disease,” Yates explains. “Whilst large routine database studies have reported the association of obesity and fragility with COVID-19 outcomes, routine clinical databases do not currently have data on measures of physical function or fitness.”

“It is my view that ongoing public health and research surveillance studies should consider incorporating simple measures of physical fitness such as self-reported walking pace in addition to BMI, as potential risk predictors of COVID-19 outcomes that could ultimately enable better prevention methods that save lives,” the study author concludes.

Gait speed is a common measurement scientists use to test the physical fitness of adults. It can also predict risk of future disease, disability, and death. Less mobility and an impaired gait are common complications of obesity. Although the CDC already lists obesity as a risk factor for COVID, the results point to walking speed being an independent risk factor.

The study, appearing in the International Journal of Obesity, focused solely on British patients. Researchers also only examined patient outcomes during the first wave of the pandemic.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.