Walking for Longevity

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.

by Alex Fotos on pixabay

Is there any hope?  

Yes.

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? 

Yes.

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)

The Takeaway

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.

Three Huge Health Benefits of Walking

Three Huge Health Benefits of Walking

Why am I writing an article about the health benefits of walking in a blog about Ashland?  Well, my website is called WalkAshland, isn’t it?  I am walking for the fun of it, and for my own health.  I hope these articles about the streets and neighborhoods of Ashland will inspire others to walk more.  So here is a short introduction to three of the myriad health benefits of walking.

The next time you have a medical check-up, don’t be surprised if your doctor hands you a prescription to walk.” Harvard Medical School report

That is some powerful “medicine!”  Let’s see what Dr. Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control from 2009 – 2017, said about walking.

Ashland is a Great Walking Community

Ashland is a great community to walk in.  Our citizens and city government leaders have made a conscious decision through the decades to keep Ashland as compact as possible, which encourages walking.

Lithia Park is a jewel of a park for taking short or long walks in any season of the year.  Beyond Lithia Park, community leaders committed years ago to create parks near every neighborhood in town, so everyone can relax in “a bit of nature.”

Speaking of nature, from the end of many Ashland streets we can access nature trails that lead into the Siskiyou Mountains and beyond, literally all the way to Canada or Mexico.

A mountain trail starts at the end of Liberty Street

Stress in Your Life?  Walking is an Anti-Stress “Wonder Drug”

Why would your doctor give you a prescription to walk?    The Harvard report goes on to say:

“Walking can even help your mood. A number of studies have found that it’s as effective as drugs for decreasing depression. It can help relieve everyday stresses, too. Tension starts to ease as the road stretches out in front of you. Mood-elevating endorphin levels increase.” (Harvard 2017)

When it comes to stress in life, it doesn’t get much tougher than having PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress). A recent study with women Veterans looked at the impact of walking on their PTSD stress.  The women took a brisk walk four times a week for 12 weeks.

The researchers reported that at the end of 12 weeks: “Both post-traumatic and depressive symptoms improved significantly by the end of study.”  In addition, the women who were interviewed said that walking helped both their emotions and their physical health. (Shivakumar 2017)

If a basic brisk walk four times a week can help reduce post-traumatic stress in women Veterans, think what it can do for your everyday stresses.  This gives an idea of the power we are talking about.

Need a Mood Lift?  Go for a Walk (preferably in nature)

 

Ashland, Lithia Park
Lithia Park, a favorite place to walk in Ashland

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”  John Muir

I think we all know intuitively that time in nature can be relaxing and healing.  If you live in a city, you may find yourself drawn to the park on a sunny day, or heading for a campground in the woods on a 3-day weekend.  Surrounded by trees or flowers or desert or sky, you can feel “the weight” of many worries melt away, at least for a time.

What about the science?  Numerous studies describe the benefits of walking in nature, but this one by researchers primarily at Stanford University really intrigued me.  They compared people who took 90 minute walks in either a natural setting or an urban setting.  Here is what they found.

“Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.” (Bratman 2015/Jordan 2015)

In other words, people had fewer negative thoughts and less activity in this “mental-stress-promoting” area of the brain after walking in natural surroundings rather than along a busy street.  The study authors theorize that allowing people in cities access to natural areas could be important for maintaining positive mood and mental health as the world continues to urbanize.

So once again, hooray for Ashland parks and trails, and hooray for the commitment to planting many trees along busy streets.

Want a Brain Health Boost?  Yes, Go for a Walk!

Walking, brain
Walking stimulates new brain cells (graphic by GDJ on pixabay)

“Greater amounts of walking are associated with greater gray matter volume [in the brain], which is in turn associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment.”  (Erickson 2010)

One of the ways walking is able to boost mood is by improving brain health.  The ageing of the “baby boom” population and the increase in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have led to a boom in brain health research.  We have learned in recent decades that the brain has significant “plasticity,” the ability to grow new cells, heal and change even in later life.  (Windle 2010)

One way walking supports brain health is by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that helps keep brain neurons healthy and even stimulates the creation of new neurons. Higher levels of BDNF are associated with better memory and overall cognitive health.  (Vaynman 2005)

Walking even increases the size of the brain, another indication of brain health.  Brain gray matter volume tends to shrink in old age, and this shrinkage is often associated with cognitive decline and dementia.

A study with 299 adults in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 65 years and older compared the amount of walking they did with their brain gray matter size 9 years later and their cognitive health 13 years later.  The people who walked the most had greater gray matter volume in all areas of the brain tested.  They also had less risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in the final set of tests.  (Erickson 2010)

So the next time you go out for a walk, enjoy knowing that you are receiving mood-lifting and brain health benefits along with the physical exercise!

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REFERENCES

Bratman GN et al. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.  PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), June 29, 2015, described in “Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature” by Rob Jordan June 30, 2015: https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/

Erickson KI et al. Physical activity predicts gray matter volume in late adulthood: the Cardiovascular Health Study.  Neurology. 2010 Oct 19;75(16):1415-22.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20944075

Harvard Medical School Health Report  (accessed 11/10/2017)
https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/walking-for-health

Shivakumar G et al. Exercise for PTSD in Women Veterans: A Proof-of-Concept Study. Mil Med. 2017 Nov;182(11):e1809-e1814.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=shivakumar+g+2017

Vaynman S & Gomez-Pinilla F. License to run: exercise impacts functional plasticity in the intact and injured central nervous system by using neurotrophins.  Neurorehabil Neural Repair.2005 Dec;19(4):283-95.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16263961

Windle G, Hughes D, Linck P, Russell I, Woods B. Is exercise effective in promoting mental well-being in older age? A systematic review. Aging Ment Health. 2010;14(6):652-669.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20686977