A major study from the National Institutes of Health, published last week in JAMA, showed that when it comes to walking, more is more for older adults — specifically, the more steps those over 40 took, the lower their mortality risk from all causes. But what surprised the researchers? How low-intensity strolls appeared to have the same benefits as higher-intensity power walks for the nearly 5,000 study participants.
Adjusting for factors such as the subjects’ existing health status, researchers found that taking 8,000 steps a day, compared with 4,000 steps, was associated with a 51 percent lower risk for all-cause mortality. Even better, taking 12,000 steps a day was linked to a 65 percent lower risk, compared with 4,000 steps.
Five-minute workouts are officially approved
The “2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans,” issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, suggested that to reap the benefits of exercise, you had to do it in 10-minute bouts. But in 2018 that thinking went out the window. Thanks to studies, including one published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, showing that walks of two minutes provided the same mortality-slashing benefits as those taken in 10 minutes, experts came to the concensus that any amount of movement can count toward recommended totals. As a result, the agency updated its second edition of the guidelines to reflect that. “The science no longer supports that you have to be active in 10-minute bouts. It very clearly supports that any movement is leading to benefits. And the more that you move, the more benefits that you get,” says Richards.
And when they crunched numbers on the association between step intensity and risk of death, the researchers, who also hailed from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found no link at all.
Light and Easy Does It
The study is one of a growing number showing the major benefits of simply moving more throughout the day, even absent anything that resembles a moderate-intensity workout.
"Some of the studies are showing that light-intensity activity is for sure more beneficial than being inactive and that it has a dose-response relationship with mortality in older folks,” explains Libby Richards, an associate professor at the Purdue University School of Nursing, whose primary research focus is physical activity in older adulthood.
When it comes to walking, part of the magic may be in how such light-intensity activity ups gait speed, which, in turn, Richards says, has a direct relationship with cardiovascular outcomes and premature mortality and disability and frailty.
If fear of injury or reinjury is holding you back, the new federal exercise guidelines are very clear that participating in physical activity reduces your risk of falls, she says. “Exercise improves balance. It also reduces the risk of injury if you do sustain a fall, because being active increases your muscular health and your bone health. So it's a win."
Sorry, Weekend Warriors
Adding years to your life for every easy stroll around the block has its pluses, but weekend warriors — proud of their ability to cram the government-recommended 150 minutes a week of exercise into 48 hours — may have to adjust their thinking.
Research reveals that skipping those five days between sessions can blunt the positive effects of those weekend workouts. “Research is showing that even if you meet physical activity guidelines by, say, going for a long walk on Saturday and Sunday, if you're inactive for the rest of the week, then it actually is undoing the benefits that you're getting from being active on the weekends,” Richards says.
Sitting: Still the New Smoking
"Sedentary behavior is bad news all around,” Richards cautions. “It's now linked with poor sleep, symptoms of depression, and reduced executive function and cognitive ability in older adults. So if there's just one thing that people could do, it would be to sit less and move more."
You've heard this news before about sitting, which brought on a frenzy in the marketplace, with the proliferation of products like standing desks and standing-height tables. But research continues to strengthen the finding that being sedentary is akin to smoking. Barbara Resnick, a professor of organizational systems and adult health at the University of Maryland School of Nursing and past president of the American Geriatrics Society, implores people to think about how they can incorporate activity into their daily routine, to avoid problems like increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and a shorter life span.
Her advice? Identify long periods of sitting in your daily routine, and conceive of ways to break them up. For instance, try sit-to-stands or a few balance exercises during commercial breaks on TV. Or, as she advises her patients living in facilities, build in short walks — say, to pick up mail or get fresh air — beyond your travels to a dining area or to regular activities. “It seems like very little activity, but we know that there are benefits, especially for somebody who's frail,” Resnick notes. “We know that if you sit there, you're going to be able to do less and less and less. And that's what people don't realize — they think it's just gonna stay, but it doesn't.”