Even in the midst of a pandemic, the simple act of walking has renewed importance for physical activity, mental health and possibly longevity.
As millions of people around the world heed the call to physically separate themselves from others to prevent the spread of coronavirus, there is another thing they can do to protect their long-term health: Increase their daily step count.
Taking more steps per day was associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, according to a study of nearly 4,800 adults published March 24 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
People who completed 8,000 steps a day had a 51% lower risk of death compared with those who took 4,000 daily steps, which is considered in the low range for adults. A longevity benefit appears to accrue to people who do more. Those who took three times the number of daily steps as the lowest group had a 65% lower risk of death, the study found.
“We found the lowest risk among those taking 12,000 steps per day or more,” said Dr. Charles E. Matthews, senior investigator in the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.
It turned out that step intensity didn’t make much of a difference. “People should be focused on the total number of steps at a pace they’ll be comfortable with,” said Dr. Pedro Saint-Maurice, lead author and postdoctoral fellow in the NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.
Study participants, who were age 40 and older, wore an accelerometer for up to a week between 2003 and 2006. Researchers then analyzed the deaths that occurred over the next 10 years, controlling for chronic conditions, health behaviors, demographic and other differences.
While previous studies have looked at step count and mortality, this observational one is more able to be generalized to the population, the authors argued. In all subgroups — men and women, middle age and older adults, white, African American and Mexican American — higher step counts were linked with lower death rates. The results also held up when looking specifically at death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The study was a joint effort of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the National Institute on Aging (NIA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Walking during the outbreak
The study authors didn’t expect their work to be released during a coronavirus pandemic when millions of people have been ordered to stay in their homes except for only the most essential errands like food shopping and medicine retrieval.
In many places, it’s still permissible to leave your home for exercise and to walk your dog. Still, hard-hit coastal areas are closing parks, hiking trails and beaches to prevent crowding that could lead to virus transmission and overwhelmed hospitals.
With widespread coronavirus anxiety and new homeschooling expectations forcing many people indoors and towards a more sedentary lifestyle, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of minimal walking. But over time, that too can be dangerous for your health.
If you’re healthy, mobile, and live where it’s safe to walk around, increasing your step count by walking close to home is a good place to start. Just make sure to give other pedestrians at least a six-foot wide berth when passing.
“If you’re able to get out and walk in your neighborhood and stay within those guidelines for social distancing, we’d certainly encourage that,” Matthews said.
And if you can’t get outside or live in a small space, whatever you can do to move your body and add to your daily step count— even if it’s changing rooms several times a day or doing laps around the apartment with earbuds in — is better than nothing.
So grab that pedometer that’s been sitting in a drawer, fire up your fitness tracker or cell phone app and start tuning in to your daily steps. Set an achievable goal for yourself for the next week and don’t be afraid to make adjustments along the way. The point is to up your step count gradually over time, and even small gains count.
As stay-at-home orders become the new normal for a while, some gyms, fitness instructors and nonprofits have transitioned to livestreaming their classes online using Zoom and other platforms — another possible way to increase your physical activity and number of steps.
Not just walking
Maybe it’s gardening, working in the yard or doing projects around the home that interests you. Those activities could add to your step count, Matthews said.
The mantra bears repeating. “People should sit less and move more,” he said.
Similarly, if you have recently been issued a home exercise program from a physical or occupational therapist for rehabilitation, now is a good time to follow it diligently and email the therapist with any questions that arise.
If you have a medical condition that makes walking difficult, adaptations such as seated marching, keeping abdominal muscles tight, can help, with your doctor’s approval.
Overall, a greater awareness of your daily step count can be a win in itself. With a dash of discipline and a tracking device, you may be able to start a new habit that helps see you through dark times and extends your life.
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