Brisk Walking

Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

An article by Gretchen Reynolds in the NY Times 6/27/18 (“It Isn’t Just the Steps. It’s the Pace”) describes the research by Dr. Catrine Tudor-Locke, professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to define “brisk walking” (Tudor-Locke et al. 2018). The term “brisk walking” is one of those phrases in English that every speaker understands intuitively, but finds extremely difficult to define. The phrase has been given added importance by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017), which state that 30 minutes of brisk walking most days have significant health benefits.

Brisk walking is defined as exercise that uses about three times as much energy as sitting still. Another definition of a brisk walk is that it increases the heart rate up to 70 percent of the heart rate maximum. Neither of these definitions matches our intuitive understanding of what it means to walk briskly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a more intuitive definition of brisk walking as a pace at which people can talk but not sing. Again, not much help.

Dr. Tudor-Locke and her colleagues found a way to bridge the gap between the physiological research needed to identify the benefits of brisk walking and our everyday understanding of the term. They reviewed 38 studies of walking that included hundreds of men and women with different body mass indexes, and different ages to identify what made walking brisk for these subjects. For all of these subjects, brisk walking required them to take 100 steps a minute, or 10 steps every 6 seconds. The researchers found that “vigorous walking” occurs at 130 steps a minute, and “jogging” at 140 steps a minute.

Although the 100-steps-a-minute definition is more understandable than other definitions of brisk walking, it still doesn’t match our intuitive feeling of the effort necessary to maintain this pace for 30 minutes over different types of terrain (Pye 2018). The gap between these objective measures of brisk walking and our own intuitions of what brisk walking entails offers a perfect illustration of the gap between mind and body. Our mind has internalized a measure of the effort each of us makes to walk at a certain pace, and then sends nerve impulses to the right set of motor neurons to implement its instruction. We can see the physiological results of this process in exquisite detail, but we can’t see the mind’s understanding of brisk walking.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “brisk” as “Sharp or smart in regard to movement”. “Brisk” is an example of a non-intersective adjective. Intersective adjectives like “green” have a uniform meaning. All green things reflect the same wavelength of light. The meaning of “brisk” changes according to the actions that it modifies. The energy required for a brisk walk is not the same as the energy required for brisk trade or a brisk encounter. There are brisk gales, brisk fires, and brisk fountains of water that do not involve human effort. All of the effort that has gone into defining a brisk walk only takes us a fraction of the way to understanding how our minds apply the concept brisk to different actions. A theory of metaphor is needed for that (Rumelhart 1993; Pye 2017).


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2017. Status Report for Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept of Health and Human Services.

Pye, C. 2017. A metaphorical theory of meaning. Linguistik Indonesia 35:1-12.

Pye, C. 2018. Walking.

Rumelhart, D. E. 1993. Some problems with the notion of literal meanings. In O. Andrew (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, pp. 71-82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tudor-Locke, Catrine, Ho Han, Elroy J Aguiar, Tiago V Barreira, John M Schuna Jr, Minsoo Kang, David A Rowe. 2018. How fast is fast enough? Walking cadence (steps/min) as a practical estimate of intensity in adults: a narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine June 2018, 52 (12) 776-788; DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-097628.

July 4, 2018

Page last modified 7/4/18

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