Posts tagged research

As little as 4,500 steps a day can have health benefits for older women

A new study at Harvard University concludes that for older women, walking as few as 4,500 steps a day reduced mortality compared with those who took only 2,700 steps a day.

Any movement, whether or not it counts as exercise, may help to extend people’s lives. People who are active have lower incidences of heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes and usually live longer than people who are sedentary. However, confusion remains about how much exercise we need and how intense it should be. Past research suggests meeting or even exceeding a 10,000-step-a-day goal. Mobile applications and fitness trackers have 10,000-step-a-day exercise goals built into them. The Canadian Physical Activity Guideline for adults 18-64 years is 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

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In an interview with New York Times, I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, who led the study, said: “People may not intuitively grasp what 150 minutes a week of exercise means in practical terms. Step counts are simpler, more concrete and convenient measure of physical activity. We can understand the concept of a step and how to add them up.”

Dr. Lee and her team looked at data from the Women’s Health Study, which has been tracking the health and habits of older women for decades. In that study, thousands of older women worn sophisticated activity monitor for a week. The monitors tracked the steps each woman took per minute throughout the day (but without showing any readouts of the totals, so the women would not know or respond to the counts).

Dr. Lee and her team gathered the step-count and health data from almost 17,000 of the participants, most of them in their 70s, and none of whom reported poor health. They also checked death records for the subsequent four to five years and than compared step counts and mortality. The team found that the women who had moved the least, taking only about 2,700 steps a day, were the most likely to have died during the follow-up period. Women who moved more often had considerably less risk of premature death, up to 7,500 steps a day. The threshold for reducing the risk of premature death was about 4,500 steps a day. Thos who reached 4,500 steps were 40 per cent less likely to have died during the follow-up period.

In terms of intensity, majority of the women strolled, rather than rushed; only a few walked intensively and for exercise. In this study, only the number of steps per day was associated with mortality, not the speed with which the women accumulated them.

This study looked at older women and mortality – further research is required to see if the findings apply to men or younger people. Dr. Lee concluded: “Even so, the findings suggest that step counts can be a useful way to measure exercise and that taking more steps is better than taking fewer.”

The power of walking

Walking is beneficial in different aspects of your life.

According to researchers at Standford University, walking boosts creative inspiration. They compared the creativity levels of participants that were walking and those that were sitting. Researchers found that a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 per cent when walking.

The research study comprised of four experiments and 176 participants. Participants were placed into different scenarios:

  1. Walking indoors on a treadmill or sitting indoors (both facing a blank wall)
  2. Walking outdoors or sitting outdoors while being pushed in a wheelchair – both along a pre-determined path on the Stanford campus.

Participants participated in different combinations, such as two consecutive seated sessions, or a walking session followed by a seated session. These sessions were also compared in the study. Researchers conclude that participants performed better on creative divergent thinking tests during and immediately after going for a walk. Divergent thinking is a “thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.”

The infographic below outlines how walking can also benefit your brain, heart, and bones, as well as your memory, mood, health, longevity, and weight.

A short 10-minute walk can benefit the brain

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences determined that even ten minutes of mild exercise can benefit the brain. In the study, scientists from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Tsukuba in Japan looked at a group of healthy young college students.

The study had 36 participants. They visited the research lab two separate times. On the first visit, each participant sat on a stationary bicycle for 10 minutes. On the second visit, they pedalled the bicycle at a gentle pace that barely increased their heart rates.

New York Times summarized: “In technical terms, the exercise was performed at about 30 percent of each volunteer’s heart rate reserve, or the difference between a person’s maximum heart rate and their resting heart rate. By comparison, brisk walking should raise someone’s heart rate reserve to about 50 percent.”

Participants completed a computerized memory test immediately after each session of sitting or slow pedalling. In the test, the participants would see a brief picture of an object (such as a tree), followed by a variety of other images and then a new image of either the same object or a similar object. Participants had to press buttons to indicate whether they thought each image was new or the same as an earlier image. Images closely resembled one another. The same process was repeated, with testing being completed inside an M.R.I machine that scanned the participant’s brains while they responded to the images.

Results showed that even though the exercise was undemanding, it had an effect on brain function. Participants were better at remembering images after they had ridden the bicycle, especially when the images closely resembled one another. Researchers also found that exercise altered how certain parts of the brain communicate and coordinate with one another. Exercise also improved memory function. The findings suggest that exercise does not need to be long and rigorous to benefit the brain. The effects can take place far more quickly than many of us might expect.

In an interview with New York Times, Michael Yassa, the director of the U.C. Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and senior co-author of the new study with Hideaki Soya of the University of Tsukuba, concluded: “It was exciting to see those effects occurring so quickly and after such light exercise. The findings show that exercise can change people’s brains and minds right away without requiring weeks of working out. Even better, the exertion required can be so slight as to allow almost anyone, even those who are out of shape or possibly disabled, to complete the exercise.”

More research needs to be completed to determine how, at a molecular level, gentle exercise affects brain function. Click here to learn more about the study.