Surprising research: How many minutes per day should we walk to increase longevity and health?
Since this blog and website is about “Walking Ashland,” I think you might enjoy learning how walking has been shown – in many scientific studies – to improve longevity. Walking at any age can boost your brain, put pep in your step and extend your life.
What are we “supposed to do?”
(according to scientific experts)
Here’s what. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans says we should get moving at least 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days each week. That works out to at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity exercise for the health benefits of exercise.
The guidelines further say that we should exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time to achieve exercise health benefits.
That all makes sense. The Guidelines were written by top experts. They were based on research. They must be true.
As with many subjects in life, I have good news and bad news for you.
First, the bad news.
How many of us meet the guidelines? Most of us say we do…that’s not surprising. But do we actually?
Ay, there’s the rub (to quote William Shakespeare). How many of us actually get moving with moderate exercise at least 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days each week (for at least 150 minutes per week total)?
Jared Tucker and two colleagues at North Dakota State University decided to find out. Here’s what they published in 2011. They compared self-reporting (what people said about their weekly physical activity) with an objective measurement of their physical activity (people wore an accelerometer for 7 days that measured steps and movement). Drum roll, please…
By self-reporting (on a questionnaire), 62% of U.S. adults in the study said they met the Physical Activity Guidelines of at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity.
By objective data (wearing an accelerometer), only 9.6% of U.S. adults in the study met the Physical Activity Guidelines of at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity. (Tucker 2011)
So more than half of the adults who filled out the questionnaire exaggerated, deceived themselves or lied about the amount of physical activity in their daily lives.
Based on the objective data, more than 90% of us are “couch potatoes.” Ouch.
Is there any hope?
Practical Tip: “After every 30 consecutive minutes spent sitting, stand up and move, ideally walking briskly for about five minutes.” (O’Keefe 2018)
A 2018 study showed that people still get the longevity benefit if they walk less than the recommended 150 minutes a week. Even walking less, they had lower mortality over 13 years than people who were sedentary. It was a huge study that followed 139,255 people in all.
The researchers concluded:
“In older adults, walking below minimum recommended levels is associated with lower all-cause mortality compared with inactivity. Walking at or above physical activity recommendations is associated with even greater decreased risk. Walking is simple, free, and does not require any training, and thus is an ideal activity for most Americans, especially as they age.” (Patel 2018)
If we take walking time per week down a notch, do we still get benefits?
The answer, according to this 2013 Italian study, is yes.
The study demonstrated longevity benefits from walking only 60 minutes per week…even if you are already 80 years old. 152 elders in Italy who walked at least 15 minutes 4 times a week had a 40% reduced risk of mortality. Dr. Fortes and colleagues concluded that their study results “suggest an independent and protective effect of walking on mortality and supports the encouragement of physical activity in advanced age for increasing longevity.” (Fortes 2013)
How about if you are really a couch potato and can’t even get out walking for 15 minutes at a time?
Is there still hope?
2015 research studied 3,626 mostly sedentary Americans who wore an accelerometer to track walking and movement. The key finding was that just 2 minutes per hour more of light activity, such as walking or light gardening, was associated with a 33% lower risk of dying during the next three years. (Beddhu 2015)
If you can’t walk or exercise for 150 minutes each week, walk for as many minutes as you can.
If you can’t walk or exercise for 10 minutes at a time, walk or move for 5 minutes at a time.
If you can’t walk or move for 5 minutes at a time, walk or move for 2 minutes at a time.
You can call them “Baby Steps” or you can call them “Tiny Habits.”
The concept is to set yourself a goal that is so simple your mind can’t find a single excuse to fight it, something like: “I will walk for 2 minutes once a day.” Almost anyone would think to himself or herself: “Sure, I can do that. No problem.”
Then, 2 minutes once a day might become 5, then 10, then 15 minutes (or more). Or it might become 2 minutes (or more) once an hour. Either way, the key is consistency.
The takeaway is that baby steps or tiny habits, done consistently, can make a huge difference in your life and your health.
So get up walking or moving a few minutes more every hour, a few minutes more every day, and you are likely to live longer and healthier.
Note: I am not advocating to walk for only 2 minutes at a time! When it comes to walking, “the more the merrier” applies. I am advocating to start with what is comfortable for you, and then to build from there…to the guidelines (150 minutes per week) and beyond!
References for the article:
Beddhu, S et al. Light Intensity Physical Activities and Mortality in the United States General Population and CKD Subpopulation, Clin J Am Soc Nephrol, 10: 1145–1153 2015.
Fortes C et al. Walking four times weekly for at least 15 min is associated with longevity in a cohort of very elderly people, Maturitas, 2013 Mar; 74(3):246-51.
O’Keefe et al. The Goldilocks Zone for Exercise: Not Too Little, Not Too Much, Missouri Medicine, 2018 Mar-Apr;115(2):98-105.
Patel AV et al. Walking in Relation to Mortality in a Large Prospective Cohort of Older U.S. Adults, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2018 Jan; 54(1):10-19.
Tucker, JM et al. Physical activity in U.S.: adults compliance with the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2011 Apr;40(4):454-61.