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Why Walking To Improve Your Health Is Not Quite As Straightforward As It Seems


Statistics reveal that 50% of the US adult population suffers from chronic diseases or cancer. So, it comes as no surprise that from time to time the US Surgeon General urges the nation to get walking and to engage in some physical activity. Any increase in activity will definitely bring significant public health benefits. Walking seems to be one of the easiest and most effective ways of achieving this goal.

Even though walking sounds fairly easy in principle, getting people to walk the right way and in the right amount is somehow a challenging task. The physical activity guidelines in 2008 advocated at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate intensity physical activity, like brisk walking.

Reports reveal that only 54% of adult men and 46% of adult women in the US meet the physical activity goal. Not just that 28% of men and 32% of women report to not have done any physical activity that lasted more than 10 minutes in the previous week of being asked. So, the potential benefit of walking if these people got active in terms of public health are quite obvious.

For walking to reap the desired health benefit, the pace at which the walking should be done needs to be above certain intensity. However, it is not specifically mentioned in the US Surgeon General’s “Step it Up” programme to promote walking, wearables like the ones from Jawbone, Fitbit and others, are one way of tracking the number of steps walked in a day. Most people make it a target to get 10,000 steps a day. But, the point is only those steps achieve the health benefit which are above a certain pace.

In order to measure the intensity of activity, a measure called metabolic Equivalent or MET is used. A person resting consumes energy at the rate of 1 MET. 3-5.9 MET signifies moderate intensity activity. In walking it translates to 4.8 km per hour or 3 miles per hour. It is recommended that a person should engage himself in about 500 to 1000 MET minutes a week to reap the health benefits. Only 2.5 hours a week will make a person reach only the bottom of the range. In reality doing 5 active hours of walking would be better.

It should be noted increased level of activity does not actually mean linear increase in health benefits. Some health benefits hit a plateau after a particular level of activity.

The health benefits of walking are known since long. However, there is a lack of scientific studies which uses objective measures to measure activity. Today, consumer wearables can now provide us with such data “ a thing that was not possible earlier.

In his recent call to action announcement, the US Surgeon General has made clear that, much more research is needed. It can help in making evidence for the exact nature of the benefits clear and can also aid in investigating how people can be persuaded to start and stick with a programme of walking to achieve the recommended amounts of exercise. As compared to running, walking typically results in fewer injuries but it is not totally free of risk. So, this is another area that requires more research.

If you are a user of devices like Fitbit or other such wearable), it will make more sense to concentrate on the active minute target than on the number of steps. 2.5 to 5 hours of active walking a week should be ideal. Another way of measuring the right level of intensity when walking without using a pedometer is that you should have enough breath to be able to talk to someone but not be able to sing.

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