Many of us regularly wear an activity tracker, which counts the number of steps we take in a day. Based on these numbers, it can be difficult to understand what they could mean for our overall health. Is it just the total number of steps in a day that matters, or does exercise intensity, such as a brisk walk or jog, make a difference?
In a new study, looking at activity tracker data from 78,500 people, walking at a brisk pace for about 30 minutes a day reduced the risk of heart disease, cancer, dementia and death, compared to walking a similar number of steps. , but at a slower pace. These results were recently published in two articles in the journals JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology.
9,800 steps per day provided the highest level of protection.
For these studies, which included participants from the UK Biobank, participants with an average age of 61 agreed to wear activity trackers for seven full days, including nights, at the start of the trial. This study is the largest to date incorporating activity tracker data.
“Activity tracker data will be better than self-reported data,” says Dr. Michael Fredericson, a sports physician at Stanford University, who was not involved in the study. “We know that people’s ability to self-report is flawed,” often because people don’t remember exactly how much they exercised in a day or week.
After collecting this data, researchers tracked the participants’ health outcomes, including whether they developed heart disease, cancer, dementia, or died over a period of six to eight years.
Researchers found that every 2,000 extra steps per day reduced the risk of premature death, heart disease and cancer by about 10 percent, to about 10,000 steps per day. When it came to developing dementia, 9,800 steps per day were associated with a 50 percent lower risk, with a 25 percent risk reduction from about 3,800 steps per day. Above 10,000 steps per day, there simply weren’t enough participants with that level of activity to determine if there were any additional benefits.
In the past, similar studies have also shown that the benefits of walking start well before the oft-touted 10,000 steps per day.
Brisk walking, even in short bursts, provided additional benefits
But then the researchers of this study did something new. When they looked at the step speed, per minute, of the highest 30 minutes of activity per day, they found that participants whose average fastest pace was a brisk walk (between 80 and 100 steps per minute) had better health outcomes compared to those who walked. a similar amount each day, but at a slower pace.
Brisk walkers had a 35 percent lower risk of dying, a 25 percent lower chance of developing heart disease or cancer, and a 30 percent lower risk of developing dementia, compared with those whose average pace was slower.
To put these numbers into perspective, a person whose total daily steps are 2,400 to 3,000 who are brisk walking could see a sharp reduction in their risk of developing heart disease, cancer and dementia, even without taking many extra steps that go beyond the total daily number.
“It doesn’t have to be a continuous 30-minute session,” said Matthew Ahmadi, a researcher at the University of Sydney and one of the authors of the studies. “It can be short bursts here and there throughout the day.”
But most importantly, aim to run a little faster than your normal pace. When it comes to the differences between brisk walking and jogging, there wasn’t enough data to determine whether one was better than the other, and both resulted in better overall health outcomes than a slower average pace. Still, a 2013 study tracked 49.05 runners and walkers and suggested that brisk walking or jogging at similar distances offers similar heart health benefits, although running a mile takes longer.
Intensity improves fitness.
This study is part of ongoing research into how important exercise intensity is for various health outcomes. These latest findings suggest that maintaining good health does not necessarily require high-intensity physical activity and that a regular amount of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, may provide a high level of protection against developing conditions such as heart disease, cancer or dementia.
When it comes to incorporating more intense exercise into your daily life, Dr. Tamanna Singh, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, often reminds her patients that everything is relative. “Everyone starts with a different training status,” she said.
A brisk pace for one person may not be fast for another, but what matters is the relative effort. At light exercise intensity, a person can sing a song, while at moderate intensity, a person can easily carry on a conversation but would have difficulty singing. At higher intensities, a conversation becomes difficult, if not impossible.
When it comes to brisk walking, “in this moderate effort you are able to increase your aerobic capacity,” said Dr. Singh. In addition to the long-term health benefits, such intensity would also lower blood pressure, moderate blood sugar, and lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
The key is to run at an intensity that is manageable, but also slightly pushes the boundaries of what is a comfortable pace.
“That constant slow stress on your body leads to fitness gains,” said Dr. Singh. “If you’re just starting out, this is probably the easiest way to get started and stay committed, consistent and injury free.”
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