Walking intensity and step count are linked to health benefits



Even a little walking may help avert serious illness and death, and a brisk stroll may be especially beneficial, according to a study of nearly 80,000 middle-aged and older adults.

Each additional 2,000 steps per day – up to 10,000 – was associated with 8% to 11% fewer deaths and less heart disease and cancer, the researchers found. Walking quickly had an even stronger link to lower health risks.

The findings were reported in JAMA Internal Medicine. In a separate paper, published in JAMA Neurology, the researchers reported associations between walking and reduced risk of dementia.

Moving faster provides a health ‘bonus’

The findings expand on evidence in smaller studies of middle-aged individuals and older women that suggested health benefits from covering less than the widely promoted target of 10,000 steps a day.

The new study supports the ideas that “every step counts” and moving faster provides a health “bonus,” said one of its co-lead authors, Borja del Pozo Cruz, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense, and a senior researcher in health at the University of Cadiz, Spain.

Dr. Del Pozo Cruz and his coauthors analyzed median daily step counts for 78,500 adults aged 40-79 years in the U.K. Biobank database who agreed to wear an accelerometer for 1 week. Participants’ average age was 61. Fifty-five percent were women and 97% were White.

Steps were categorized as “incidental,” defined as a pace of less than 40 per minute, and “purposeful,” ones taken at the pace of 40 or more per minute. Researchers also calculated peak 30-minute cadence, the average of an individual’s 30 most active minutes in a day.

Participants’ health records were reviewed after 7 years. Each additional 2,000 steps taken was associated with lower all-cause mortality (mean rate of change [MRC] in the hazard ratio, –0.08; 95% confidence interval, –0.11 to –0.06); cardiovascular mortality (MRC, –0.10; 95% CI, –0.15 to –0.06), and cancer mortality (MRC, –0.11; 95% CI, –0.15 to –0.06).

Similar incremental reductions were observed in the incidence of heart disease, defined as fatal and nonfatal coronary heart disease, stroke, and heart failure; and a composite cancer outcome of 13 sites shown to be associated with low physical activity.

Both incidental and purposeful steps were linked to lower rates of mortality and disease. Particularly encouraging, the researchers said, was the benefit associated with incidental steps, which might be more feasible for some individuals than a planned walk.

The association with better outcomes was especially strong for peak-30 cadence, with individuals in the top fifth of intensity having a 34% lower mortality rate compared with those in the bottom fifth – an observation that researchers wrote “reflects the importance of the natural best effort relative to the individual’s capability.”

The analysis adjusted for a variety of factors including age, sex, race, smoking, alcohol use, fruit and vegetable consumption, medication use, family history of cardiovascular disease or cancer, and sleep quality. It also excluded participants who had deaths and illnesses within 2 years of a step assessment to minimize the problem of reverse causation, in which existing health problems cause participants to move less.


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