By John Salak –
It doesn’t take much of an effort to lower a person’s risk of deadly diseases and increase their chance to live a longer and healthier life, according to a new flood of research out of the United States, Britain and Australia.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham, for example, reported that adding just 500 steps a day—about a quarter of a mile—can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and heart failure by 14 percent. The 500-step formula is particularly effective for older adults, the Alabama research team noted.
“Steps are an easy way to measure physical activity, and more daily steps were associated with a lower risk of having a cardiovascular disease-related event in older adults,” noted lead researcher Erin E. Dooley, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the university. “However, most studies have focused on early-to-midlife adults with daily goals of 10,000 or more steps, which may not be attainable for older individuals.”
The study came to its conclusions after researchers analyzed data from almost 500 participants with an average age of 78. Each individual used an accelerometer device similar to a pedometer to measure daily steps. The device was worn for at least three days for ten or more hours daily. The average step count was about 3,500 steps per day.
During a 3.5-year follow-up period, 7.5 percent of the participants experienced a cardiovascular disease event, such as coronary heart disease, stroke or heart failure.
The data revealed the more steps someone took, the better their health. Compared to adults who took less than 2,000 steps per day, those who knocked off 4,500 a day had a 77 percent lower risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event. In fact, every additional 500 steps taken per day over 2,000 was incrementally associated with a 14 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
“It’s important to maintain physical activity as we age, however, daily step goals should also be attainable. We were surprised to find that every additional quarter of a mile or 500 steps of walking had such a strong benefit to heart health,” Dooley said. “While we do not want to diminish the importance of higher intensity physical activity, encouraging small increases in the number of daily steps also has significant cardiovascular benefits. If you are an older adult over the age of 70, start with trying to get 500 more steps per day.”
The Alabama-based team wasn’t the only group to unveil research that underscores the importance of moderate daily exercise.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge reported that one in ten early deaths could be prevented if everyone managed to hit at least half of the recommended level of physical activity—which amount to 11 minutes of moderate exercise daily, such as a brisk walk.
This commitment would reduce the risk of maladies such as heart disease, stroke and a number of cancers.
This 11-minute daily workout is minimal compared to Britain’s national recommendation that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week.
“If you are someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a bit daunting, then our findings should be good news. Doing some physical activity is better than doing none. This is also a good starting position—if you find that 75 minutes a week is manageable, then you could try stepping it up gradually to the full recommended amount,” reported Dr. Soren Brage of Cambridge’s Medical Research Council.
The British research team specifically found that 11 minutes a day or 75 minutes a week of moderate activity reduced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 17 percent and cancer by 7 percent compared to those who don’t exercise as much. The study further reported that this level of activity would prevent approximately one in ten early deaths, one in twenty cases of cardiovascular disease and nearly one in thirty cases of cancer.
A brisk walk isn’t the only way to hit these activity goals. Dancing, bike riding, playing tennis and hiking would also work.
The benefits of physical activity don’t stop at preventing early deaths and reducing the risk of serious diseases. The University of South Australia claims that exercise is 1.5 times more effective than counseling and leading medications at reducing the mental health symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress.
The study’s results come from examining data from 97 reviews and 1,039 trials that involved almost 130,000 individuals. The results found that the greatest benefits for those exposed to exercise interventions of 12 weeks or less were among people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals and those diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.
“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” noted lead researcher Dr. Ben Singh says. “Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement. Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts.”
The Australian team also echoed what their colleagues in the U.S. and Britain reported. “Importantly, the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health,” Singh said.