By John Elder
So this guy is sitting on a mat, near a pool, maybe eating a bucket of chips and a battered sausage and making eyes at a deep-fried chocolate bar in the stead of a girlfriend. Let’s be blunt and say he’s a fat guy… or even a really fat guy. Why not? It’s the way of the world.
Worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) at least 2.8 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese – and getting fat isn’t all about eating loads of rubbish. It’s also about not moving – essentially becoming an ornament.
Globally, around 31% of adults aged 15 and over were insufficiently active in 2008 (men 28%, women 34%). And approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity.
In that light, let’s get back to the chubby chap on the mat with only his snacks to keep him company. He has a little whinge about wanting to get into the water but having no one to help him.
“Everybody’s in there but me,” he says.
OK, so he’s talking to Jesus, but stay with us, if you will, because Jesus takes a hard line and famously says:
“Get up, pick up your mat and walk!”
The fellow gets up and walks and decides it feels pretty good. A miracle from on high? It was reported as such, but really it was just fabulous advice. Because as the world sinks under its own saturated weight – losing hope of a healthy turn-around with each new kilogram – mounting evidence shows that if the human horde were to simply pick up that mat and start walking, millions of lives each year would be saved, extended and vastly improved, mentally, emotionally as well as physically.
“Physical activity can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, falls and fractures, and some mental health problems.”
So, why don’t people walk more?
You may have heard these excuses from loved ones before – or even uttered them yourself.
1. I’m too tired, absent-minded and distracted to even get started!!! Well of course you are my friend. Leaving aside the diminished oxygen pumping to your brain as you cuddle up to those donuts on the couch; that neutral-coloured paint on the walls (blue-grey: so in fashion, such a curse) and the noisy clutter of modern life is making your brain tired.
An Edinburgh study using a mobile EEG to measure brain waves and emotional response has all but proved what’s long been suspected: strolling through green spaces, such as found in a park or golf course, will calm your brain and put you into a more meditative state. Make a habit of it and you’ll significantly cut the risk of heart attack and stroke. And you’ll sleep better.
2. Just by walking? You’ve got to dress up in lycra and actually run to get your heart going, don’t you? No! In 2013, researchers compared data from a running study (33,060 runners) to data from a walking study (15,045 walkers). They found that for the same amount of energy used (calories burned) walking delivered greater health benefits than running. For example:
- Running reduced the risk of heart disease by 4.5%, walking reduced it by 9.3%
- Running reduced the risk of first-time high blood pressure by 4.2%, walking reduced it by 7.2%
- Running reduced the risk of first-time high cholesterol by 4.3%, walking reduced it by 7%
- Both running and walking reduced the risk of first-time diabetes by about 12%
3. I’m too far gone mate. I was quite sickly as a child. And, like, I read in a magazine at the fish and chip shop that your childhood sets you up for life, good or bad! Not true. Young people who survive cancer do tend to die 10 years earlier than their cancer-free peers – but this is partly to do with the toll of chemotherapy and inactivity (from physical weakness), which leads to heart disease. And it’s the heart disease, mostly, that kills them.
But a huge study published last month and reported here has found that exercise can reverse this trend. Researchers were able to show that regular brisk walking, for an hour improved the long-term survival of people who had childhood cancers. The improved life expectancy was observed even if the exercise began years after the cancer treatment had ended.
4. Yeah, well, that’s lovely, but I’m still going to want my donuts, fried chicken and apple-sausage strudel, aren’t I? Maybe not as much. A study out of Indiana University found that when participants transitioned from inadequate exercise to adequate exercise, they also transitioned to eating more fruit and vegetables. This might just mean that as people get more fit, their bodies crave healthier food.
How brisk is brisk?
Great question. We do keep mentioning brisk walking. Thankfully, Professor Catrine Tudor-Locke from the University of Massachusetts has developed a practical guide. You can read the full results of her study here, but the short version is: brisk walking is about 100 steps per minute, which is a lot less taxing than one might expect. She also found that vigorous walking is about 130 steps per minute, while jogging happens at about 140 a minute.
Tudor-Locke and her colleagues came to this conclusion after reviewing 38 high-quality studies that had tracked people’s walking pace, heart rate and respiration. The studies examined people of varying ages and body mass indexes – and consistently they found brisk walking to be 100 steps a minute – plus or minus two steps. An easy number to measure, and an achievable target for most.
How long do I have to keep it up?
In the US, the official guidelines for adults recommend at least 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic physical activity, or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, per week. Australian guidelines suggest 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity at a moderate intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of physical activity at a vigorous intensity, OR an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, per week.
This translates to 30 minutes of brisk walking most days. As we discussed in a previous blog post, when you combine this with 10,000 steps daily, you’re pretty much hitting the health jackpot.
But each on their own is beneficial too: 30 minutes and 10,000 steps. You’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other. A 2015 study found that people who walked around for just two minutes at a time – with a total of 30 minutes walked in a day – reduced their risk of dying over a three-year period by 33%. People with chronic kidney disease reduced their risk of dying by more than 40%.
Is walking enough for weight loss or do I have to cut back on my food?
Well, you are better off swapping three cream buns for a single banana, but a new study has in fact found that you can drop the kilos from doing exercise alone. The catch? You have to do quite a bit. Previous experiments found that the calories burned during 30 minutes of moderate exercise were compensated for by a drop in metabolism. In short: doing 30 minutes of exercise per day and changing nothing else, pretty much means your body fat won’t budge.
The new study asked: what if people doubled their exercise but maintained their regular diet? Would their fat STILL stay put? To find out, scientists from a bunch of universities and institutions invited 31 overweight, sedentary men and women to a lab for measurements of their body composition. Their diet was recorded. They were given activity trackers. Half the group did 30 minutes of exercise a day, five times a week and lost a total of 1500 calories; the other half doubled their exercise, and lost 3000 calories.
After 12 weeks, with the volunteers in both groups maintaining their regular diets, everyone returned to the lab for follow-up measurements. The group who lost 1500 calories a week lost little body fat and some volunteers actually put on weight. But most of the other group were thinner than before, with many of them losing at least 5% of their body fat.
The take-away here isn’t sweet and sour pork.
It’s this: walking is damn good for you. And you don’t even have to do that much of it. It’s really that simple.
During the course of our own data mining, we’ve repeatedly seen, that when it comes to improving your health, it’s the small, consistent changes - much like walking more - that count. For example, we’ve found that people who drink 7 or more glasses of water a day are twice as likely to have a healthy waistline than an unhealthy waistline. No magic pills or procedures here.
We’ve also seen that people have different health needs. You may not need to increase your step count, you might need more sleep. You might not need to eat better, you may need to move more. You might not need to acquire more ‘things’, you may just need to find time to appreciate what you already have.
The nature of the change doesn’t matter, the journey starts with this: you have to want it. Once you want it, you can map out the steps to take in order to fulfil your goal - which is something we’ll be able to help you with very soon. Until then: happy walking!
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John is a Melbourne journalist and writer. For 21 years he was senior writer for the Sunday Age newspaper and Fairfax Media, with a special interest in science, medicine and health research – and in philosophical questions facing modern society. He continues to be a life-issues columnist for The Sunday Age, science and health contributor for The New Daily and is an editorial advisor for the Clueless Economist.