Doing This When You Walk Slashes Your Risk of Heart Attack, Cancer, and Dementia, New Study Says

This minor change comes with major benefits, experts say.

Anyone can develop a heart attack, cancer, or dementia, but that doesn't mean everyone is at equal risk. While there's no one way to definitively guarantee you won't develop these conditions, lifestyle interventions such as a healthy diet, exercise, quitting smoking, and more can help prevent them. In particular, experts say that walking regularly can help you lower your risk of these three life-threatening conditions, especially if you do one specific thing when you walk. Read on to learn how to make the most of your daily walk at any step count, and to find out why even incremental improvements to your walking routine can come with some big benefits.

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Walking comes with major health benefits.

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With the rise of activity trackers, many of us have begun setting goals surrounding our daily step count. While the average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps each day—translating to roughly one and a half to two miles—most experts say we should set our sights higher, at 10,000 steps or more.

Getting into a regular walking routine can have tremendous health benefits, including lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and obesity, says the Mayo Clinic. Perhaps most impressively, walking roughly 10,000 steps per day is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of dementia, says a new study published in two papers in the journals JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology.

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Doing this when you walk can slash your risk of heart attack, cancer, and dementia.

Senior woman walking in public park
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According to the new research, which looked at fitness tracking data from nearly 80,000 individuals, those who sped up their step rate per minute gained more from their daily walks. In other words, no matter how many steps you take in a day, you stand to gain more health benefits by taking them at a quicker pace.

In fact, subjects who walked at a brisk pace (defined as 80 to 100 steps per minute) for 30 minutes per day had a 25 percent chance lower risk of heart disease or cancer, a 30 percent lower risk of dementia, and a 35 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality, compared to those who walked at a slower average pace.

The researchers noted that these results held true even when they looked at the "the 30 highest, not necessarily consecutive, minutes in a day." Those who walked briskly in shorter stints still benefited, the study authors said. "It doesn't have to be a consecutive 30-minute session," Matthew Ahmadi, study author and a research fellow at the University of Sydney, told The New York Times. "It can just be in brief bursts here and there throughout your day," he added.

Even modest improvements can provide major gains.

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Though the researchers found that subjects gained optimal benefits from taking an average of 9,800 steps per day—a number that supports past research—they also observed benefits in those individuals whose total step counts fell well under that amount.

Specifically, the researchers noted that with each additional 2,000 steps per day, subjects lowered their risk of premature death, heart disease and cancer by about 10 percent. Though benefits may have continued to grow past 10,000 steps per day, too few study participants completed that level of activity to collect enough data supporting them.

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Do this to get started, experts say.

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There are many simple ways to work more steps into your day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests beginning by choosing a route and time of day that you can easily stick to. "Start slowly and work up to being physically active 150 minutes a week," their experts advise.

The Mayo Clinic further recommends taking your dog for extended walks, walking as a social activity, walking any time you find yourself waiting, parking farther away from your destinations, taking the stairs instead of an elevator, and taking short walking breaks throughout the workday.

Given the outsized benefits associated with walking quickly, you should aim to walk at a moderate intensity pace. "That means you've raised your heart rate and broken a sweat. In general, at moderate intensity, you can talk, but you can't sing," says the CDC.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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