Did you know that getting in your daily steps could save your life?
A new study of more than 2,000 adults showed that taking at least 7,000 steps per day reduced mortality by 50% to 70% compared to those who took less steps. The average age of study participants was 45, and they were followed over an 11-year period.
This is the kind of evidence-based study I like to share with my patients in the ER. Although our time together is limited, I try to discuss diet and exercise with my patients as much as possible. I’ve found that most patients who don’t typically exercise find it a daunting task to start.
They assume that their only option is to transition from not exercising to joining a gym. While a lot of people can make that leap, I actually recommend most patients start off slowly – and they may also need clearance from their primary care doctor or cardiologist first as well.
Walking is a very underrated exercise. And there has been a flurry of recent studies all showing the various benefits of walking.
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Walking also reduces your risk of dementia
A really fascinating United-Kingdom-based study published in JAMA looked at an even larger group of adults to determine if walking had any benefit with reducing the risk of dementia. Scientists studied over 78,000 adults ranging from 40 to 79 years. This group had a higher average age than the aforementioned study and were followed over seven years.
This study found that around 10,000 steps a day was the optimal amount for an observed reduction in the risk of dementia.
The previous study did not demonstrate an association between step intensity and reduction in mortality. Meaning, if you’re just starting out with a daily walk, you don’t have to over-exert yourself to get the benefit. But researchers behind the JAMA study did find that there was a benefit to intensity. They noted that steps performed at a higher intensity – 112 steps/min – resulted in an even stronger association; meaning that step intensity further reduced the risk of dementia.
What accounts for the different results between the two studies? It’s unclear – but the benefit of intensity was found in the larger study of 78,000 participants. So perhaps the smaller study wasn’t powered to detect the benefit; meaning an insufficient number of individuals were enrolled to draw a meaningful conclusion.
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Is it time to bring back the post-dinner stroll?
When’s the best time to get those steps in? A lot of people – me included – have jobs that keep us active on our feet during the day. For example, I clock in about 5,000-6,000 steps in an average 8-hour ER shift. So some people might prefer to try to hit that 10K step goal with an evening stroll.
Another new study found a lot of benefit to a post-dinner walk. A lot of people subscribe to the popular belief that walking after dinner aids digestion and clears the mind. Well, a recent meta-analysis (a comprehensive review of multiple studies that aggregates the results) in the Sports Medicine journal found that light walking for just 2 to 5 minutes significantly tempered blood sugar levels. The studies looked at both those with and without diabetes. Remember, it’s important for diabetics in particular to control the frequency of blood sugar spikes.
That being said, morning is also a great time for a walk. I highly recommend getting some early morning sunlight within 1 hour of waking. It’s really important to get that skin exposure to that early morning sunlight so your body can produce that critical Vitamin D so leave the sunscreen off (unless you are very sensitive to sunburn) since UVA and UVB are in less abundance before noon.
It’s also important to get some indirect sunlight to your eyes to kickstart your circadian rhythm for the day. Consider leaving the sunglasses at home too – but please never look directly at the sun!
The bottom line is that multiple studies show a clear mortality benefit in getting in those 10K steps every day. While the aforementioned studies showed differing results on the benefits of step intensity, there are multiple studies showing a cardiovascular benefit to intensity of any exercise, as tolerated. The key point is that walking is free, accessible, and well-tolerated by the majority of people. If you’re ready to start exercising, walking should be your gateway drug of choice.
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Michael Daignault, MD, is a board-certified ER doctor in Los Angeles. He studied Global Health at Georgetown University and has a Medical Degree from Ben-Gurion University. He completed his residency training in emergency medicine at Lincoln Medical Center in the South Bronx. He is also a former United States Peace Corps Volunteer. Find him on Instagram @dr.daignault