This fall you may have seen stories featuring slightly overweight celebrities using an expensive new obesity drug, but what you may have missed was news of the best ‘drug’ of them all. : walk 10,000 steps.
Studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in JAMA Neurology and JAMA Internal Medicine seem to show that walking is actually the prescription we should all be looking for. Walking around 10,000 steps a day seems to be linked to less dementia and less cardiovascular disease overall, with less heart disease, less heart failure and fewer strokes. It can significantly reduce your risk of 13 types of cancer while reducing your risk of dementia by 50%.
“If we could put physical activity into a ‘pill,’ it would probably be the most powerful medicine we have for a variety of health conditions,” said research professor John M. Jakicic, Ph.D. in the Physical Sciences Division. Activity and weight management in the Department of Internal Medicine at the KU School of Medicine.
The study in JAMA Neurology, published in September 2022, found that walking 9,800 steps per day was associated with a consistent decline in dementia risk, and even fewer steps than the 9,800 threshold were still associated with a decline. The study also found that greater walking intensity was linked to a significantly lower risk of dementia. The companion study showed that for 2,000 steps a day, you could reduce your risk of premature death by 8-11%.
A Web MD article sums it up nicely: “Turns out there’s something special about 10,000 steps a day.
None of this came as a surprise to Russell Swerdlow, MD, co-director of the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (KU ADRC) and professor of neurology at the KU School of Medicine.
“If exercise was a pill, we’d all be asking for a prescription,” he said. “We don’t understand exactly how exercise works, but we understand enough that everyone should do it.”
Swerdlow notes that there are exercise studies at the KU ADRC that seek to see what “dose” of exercise is optimal for the prevention of cognitive decline, and he points out that the JAMA Neurology study is a study that combines steps to health, not one that tests different amounts of exercise in a randomized trial.
“It’s certainly an area ripe for further study, and so many people at KU Medical Center are considering exercise and preventing or slowing down a number of diseases.”
One “pill”, many diseases treated
One such KU Medical Center researcher is Jakicic, who studies obesity and its relationship to chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. He has published several studies on the association between better health and steps. He was also a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee.
“Evidence suggests that accumulating up to 10,000 steps per day is helpful in reducing chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer,” he said. “And more recent evidence supports the benefits of reduced dementia risk.” Jakicic also noted that there are benefits for people who are patients with pre-existing conditions as well as those who are just healthy adults looking to prevent disease and improve their longevity, which is translates into a better quality of life.
A big contributor to many health problems is linked to excess weight, which suggests that losing weight will help reduce these health risks. However, weight loss can be difficult for many. If you want to lose weight, walk 10,000 steps a day. “For patients interested in weight loss, when combined with a modest reduction in caloric intake, progression to 10,000 steps per day has also been shown to improve long-term weight loss and prevention of weight regain after weight loss,” Jakicic said.
What’s the science behind 10,000 steps?
Most health-conscious people know by now that the original number of 10,000 steps often associated with good health was simply a number selected by a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s. So if there’s really anything at 10,000 steps, what is it? What makes walking (or even vigorous walking) so good for our bodies?
Some of the answers can be simple, and some can be incredibly complex.
Sandra Billinger, Ph.D, professor of neurology at the KU School of Medicine, studies exercise, brain health, and stroke recovery. She notes that there are proven benefits to pumping blood through your system like we do when we walk.
“Movement and physical activity in general confer benefits on the vascular system, the heart, and the supply of oxygen-rich blood to muscles and organs,” she said. “There are so many molecules released that have positive effects on our bodies for blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose regulation and more.”
Billinger mentions a 2020 study, featured in a New York Times article, that showed 9,815 molecular changes caused by exercise. That’s a lot of change, and scientists are doing more studies to figure it all out. Many of these studies take place at KU Medical Center.
Some of these studies can be done by Swerdlow’s lab, which studies exercise metabolism. Swerdlow takes a close look at the mitochondria, an organelle some call the “powerhouse of the cell” because it produces the chemical energy that powers the cell. Mitochondrial failure is linked to Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, although scientists like Swerdlow are still trying to understand why and how to stimulate mitochondria. Could exercise be part of the answer?
It turns out that exercise produces changes in mitochondria that we’re only just beginning to understand.
“Mitochondria and exercise are closely linked,” Swerdlow said. “When you exercise, you create oxidative stress in the muscle and this stimulates the production of mitochondria, in the muscle and elsewhere in other tissues in your body.”
What about that lactic acid, which naturally builds up with vigorous exercise and contributes to the fatigue you feel when exercising? It stimulates the mitochondria in your muscles. It also stimulates mitochondria throughout your body, including your brain.
“We often think oxidation is bad,” Swerdlow said. “But in this case, it could be very good indeed.”
Do I really have to walk that far?
Maintaining an active lifestyle is important for preventing and surviving cancer, said Christie Befort, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Population Health at KU School of Medicine and associate director for prevention and cancer control at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. Befort conducts community-based research on behavioral weight loss interventions and cancer prevention and survivorship.
“Studies are beginning to support the benefits of the popular goal of 10,000 steps per day as the optimal number of steps for health and longevity, including cancer prevention,” she said. “But some are better than none. There are significant benefits observed with increasing steps at different increments, up to this optimal goal.
Taking 10,000 steps throughout the day is roughly equivalent to walking four or five miles, depending on your stride.
That sounds like a lot, but it might not be much more than you walk right now, Jakicic said. “The average adult in the United States takes between 2,000 and 4,000 steps a day as part of normal activities and work. Your steps can really start to add up by looking for opportunities to move more each time you possible.
Not everyone can do it, especially people who already have a chronic illness. There’s good news in the fact that studies show that some exercises are better than none, with benefits increasing with the number of steps – until around 10,000 steps where those benefits level off or stop. Billinger points out that fewer steps can still provide incredible benefits.
“For people who reached 3,800 steps per day, the onset of dementia was reduced by 25%, which has important public health recommendations,” she said of the study. JAMA Neurology, noting that more research is needed.
At the end of the day, take the free pill, without a prescription.
As always, consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. Let them know if you have any pre-existing health conditions and don’t stop taking other medications.
#steps #magic #pill