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Daily walking can lower cardiovascular disease risk, even in people who sit most of the day

  • A new study reports that people can get health benefits from 9,000 to 10,500 steps a day, even if they’re sedentary the rest of the time.
  • Researchers said these number of steps lowered mortality risk by 39% and cardiovascular risk by 21%
  • Experts say that other exercise, such as swimming and bicycling, can also help improve heart health.

A new study has some encouraging news for people who have trouble finding time to exercise.

Researchers say every step you take toward the goal of 10,000 steps per day reduces the risk of death and cardiovascular disease.

In addition, they say you get these health benefits, even if you are sedentary most of the rest of the day.

The researchers published their findings today in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The researchers, led by scientists at the University of Sydney/Charles Perkins Centre in Australia, accessed data on 72,174 individuals, with an average age 61. About 58% of the subjects were female.

The individuals were enrolled in the UK Biobank study – a major biomedical database – and wore an accelerometer device on their wrist for 7 days to measure physical activity and time spent sedentary (sitting or lying down while awake).

The study authors said in a release that previous studies have shown higher daily step counts are associated with lower levels of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death while others have linked high levels of sedentary behavior with increased risks of death and CVD.

However, none of the studies looked at whether high levels of physical activity can offset, or lessen, the higher risk of death and CVD associated with time spent sedentary.

Details from the daily steps and heart disease study

The researchers looked at median step count for the study subjects who logged 6,222 steps per day and those who tallied 2,200 steps per day, which was the lowest 5% of daily steps among participants.

They used those measurements as the reference point to assess the impact on death and CVD events with increasing step count.

The study participants’ median sedentary time was 10.6 hours per day. Subjects sedentary for 10.5 hours per day or more were considered to have high sedentary time while those spending less than 10.5 hours per day sedentary were considered having low sedentary time.

Researchers said during the average of nearly 7 years of follow up, 1,633 subjects died and 6,190 experienced CVD events.

After considering other potentially influential factors, the study authors concluded that between 9,000 and 10,500 steps per day was the optimal number of daily steps to counteract high sedentary time.

That amount of steps lowered mortality risk by 39% and CVD risk by 21%. In both scenarios, 50% of the benefit came between 4,000 and 4,500 steps per day.

How many steps per day provide heart health benefits?

The authors noted their research involved an observational study and therefore was unable to establish cause and effect.

The authors added that although the large sample size and long follow-up period allowed the risk of bias to be reduced, it was possible other unmeasured factors could have affected results.

They said the fact that steps and sedentary time were obtained in a single time point could have led to reporting bias.

However, they concluded any daily steps above 2,200 steps per day was associated with lower mortality and CVD risk for those with low and high sedentary time.

“Accruing between 9,000 and 10,000 steps/day optimally lowered the risk of mortality and incident CVD among highly sedentary participants,” the study authors wrote. “The minimal threshold associated with substantially lower mortality and CVD risk was between 4,000 and 4,500 steps/day.”

“Our prospective results provide relevant findings that can be used to augment public health messaging and inform the first generation of device-based physical activity and sedentary behavior guidelines, which will likely include specific recommendations on daily stepping,” they added.

Dr. Hoang Nguyen, an interventional cardiologist at the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that doctors have known for decades that daily routine physical activity have cardiovascular benefits.

However, he noted this study is different.

“This study is interesting in that it addresses a higher level of activity can compensate for a sedentary lifestyle in terms of CVD and mortality benefits,” Nguyen said. “The study benefits from a large data pool, but it is limited by being an observational study with possible unidentified confounding factors.”

The best ways to achieve daily step goals

Nguyen said the study can be used as a source of encouragement for people who are sedentary but yet can spare some time for physical activity when possible.

“There are multiple ways to increase physical activity, which translates to steps in your daily life,” he said. “When driving to work or groceries, for example, avoid parking close to the entrance. You can also take your dog for a walk when you get home. If you don’t have a dog, you can volunteer to be a dog walker for your neighbor, friends, or relatives.

“In a work environment, try to use the stairs rather than the elevator,” Nguyen added. “Instead of texting or calling your colleague, you can walk to their desk or office in person. Instead of driving to your favorite lunch spots, perhaps try lunch at a walking distance restaurant. Invest in a smart watch with an accelerometer so you can keep track and set a goal for yourself.”

Dr. J. Wes Ulm, a bioinformatic scientific resource analyst and biomedical data specialist at the National Institutes of Health who also was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today it’s a “well-structured, basic bread-and-butter yet also rigorous study, a good illustration of how science is done in tackling one of its defining missions: teasing out actual causation from correlation.”

“The verdict from this study is that it indeed appears to be the exercise itself and not simply the ‘non-sedentariness,’ that promotes enhanced health maintenance, hence the recommendation for 10,000 steps daily,” he said. “The catch, of course, is that this can be a tall order for busy Americans with long hours and additional responsibilities around family and errands, even more so given our notoriously long commutes and comparatively high stress levels relative to other developed countries.”

Ulm said the United States has barriers to the kind of routine exercise seen in Europe and Asia.

“The U.S. unfortunately has a notoriously challenging work-life balance for achieving such goals in part due to structural factors like our urban planning and baseline geography,” he explained. “We simply have to drive much longer distances between home and the workplace, and in much worse traffic and congestion, compared to peers in Europe and Asia who have more available public transportation, bicycle, and walking options, and office-household arrangements that allow them in aggregate to work closer to home at more affordable housing costs.”

Other exercises besides steps to improve heart health

Dr. Geoff Barnes, a cardiologist, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and an expert at the International Society of Thrombosis and Hemostasis, told Medical News Today that any movement helps.

“While walking is a great way to stay moving, other options include riding a bike, swimming, or climbing stairs,” said Barnes, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Getting more activity into your daily routine does not have to necessarily require dedicated time for exercise or a prescribed step count.”

Barnes also suggested walking during meetings, either in person or by phone. He said the benefits to your body go beyond heart health.

“We know that many forms of activity, including walking, biking, and swimming, are beneficial not only to your heart but also to your veins,” he said. “One of the biggest risks of immobility for long durations of time can lead to blood clots – deep vein thrombosis – or varicose veins. It’s essential to keep the blood pumping throughout your body and in your legs to help prevent life-threatening conditions.”

Dr. Mustali Dohadwala is the sole practitioner of Heartsafe LLC, a private cardiovascular practice in Boston. Dohadwala, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Medical News Today that any moderately intense activity for at least 150 minutes weekly, spread across the week, will work as well as walking.

“This activity should elevate the heart rate to at least three times its resting rate,” he said. “Participating in enjoyable activities such as recreational sports like soccer, swimming, squash, or pickleball can make meeting this requirement more enjoyable.”

You should still avoid sedentary time

Even though the study said people can still have plenty of sedentary time, Dohadwala said avoiding an overall sedentary lifestyle is crucial.

“Even incorporating as little as 15 minutes of light activity into daily routines has been shown to have significant positive impacts on cardiovascular health and overall mortality rates,” Dohadwala said. “This level of exercise improves cardiac, vascular, and brain health, potentially extending lifespan. By elevating heart rate and increasing vascular blood flow, this activity effectively lowers blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol levels, while reducing fat stores, systemic inflammation, stress, and depression.”

“Notably, each of these factors — blood pressure, glucose levels, cholesterol levels, fat stores, inflammation, stress— has been independently linked to cardiovascular outcomes, underscoring the importance of regular physical activity for overall well-being,” he added.

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