Bottom Line: Walking is called free medicine for good reason—step this way to avoid diabetes.
Have you been warned that you’re inching toward diabetes? Just as being too sedentary is a key culprit, being more active can turn the situation around. And with walking, you don’t have to jump into a complicated exercise plan. But before you put on comfortable shoes and take off, know the amount of walking that’s needed.
Scientists at the University of Warwick in the UK compared the health of postal workers with office jobs to those who walked to deliver mail. The more sitting/less walking, the greater the likelihood of having metabolic syndrome and heart disease risk. The workers who didn’t have risk factors for metabolic syndrome had one thing in common: They walked more than 15,000 steps a day or stood (rather than sat) for more than seven hours a day. Metabolic syndrome has several components—increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Each of the study participants who walked fewer than 15,000 steps a day or was upright less than 7 hours a day had at least one component of the metabolic syndrome, explained study coauthor William Tigbe, MD. Those who spent most of their time sitting were more likely to have not only metabolic syndrome, but also more belly fat and a significantly higher risk for heart disease.
How long to walk: Gradually build up to 15,000 steps a day. Brisk walkers can log about half that amount in 60 minutes and fill in the rest by taking advantage of “real life” opportunities to walk instead of ride (i.e., in a car, bus, elevator…you get the idea). Use a pedometer, fitness tracker or fitness app on your phone to clock all the steps you take throughout the day in addition to those from dedicated walking. Watching the count increase as the day goes on will motivate you to reach your goal. Yes, 15,000 steps—or about 7 miles of walking—can seem intimidating, but don’t let that keep you in your chair. Even some movement helps: Another study, this one done in the Netherlands, found that replacing just 30 minutes of sitting (at work or at home) with 30 minutes of walking can reduce the risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
How often to walk: Six days a week is ideal. The key is consistency, said Susan Besser, MD, a board-certified family physician with Mercy Personal Physicians in Baltimore, Maryland. Avoid trying to cram in a week’s worth of exercise in your weekends. When weekdays are too busy to devote a full 60 minutes to walking, break up daily bouts into four 15-minute walks or six 10-minute walks.
How fast to walk: A brisk walking pace to improve health is four miles per hour. The average person’s leisure walk is about 2.5 miles to three miles an hour, so that means making an effort to pick up the pace.
Challenge yourself by adding interval training. Walk faster for one or two blocks (or one or two minutes if you’re on a trail) and then return to your normal pace for one or two blocks, repeating the sequence for the entire walking session. As you develop more stamina, change your route to include hills.
Miserable weather? Not an excuse! Use a treadmill or head to a mall and get your steps there.
And how about this: Get a dog. Another UK study found that having a dog—or walking with a friend who had one—helped people with type 2 diabetes stay more active.