Tuesday 17 May 2016

Diet & Exercise: Every step counts

An alternative title for this post would be "Every step is in the right direction when it comes to health benefits" - but that doesn't scan as well ;) I must admit that aside from being overweight (OK, obese) since my undergraduate days, and always hating getting sweaty due to my eczema, I had also had the preconception that to be of any real benefit you had to do do substantial amounts of vigorous exercise, otherwise it wasn't worthwhile. For many years this meant I'd alternate between periods of gym membership (when I'd do more than an hour of weight training and brisk aerobic conditioning using a mix of stationary bike, rowing machine and treadmill, three times a week) lasting from several months to a couple of years before 'dropping off' and becoming almost completely sedentary again.

However, a recent online course I did on EdX ('The Body Matters') helped convince me that while it might be best to be of ideal weight/BMI and doing the recommended minimum of 3x30 min sessions of vigorous exercise a week, it is still important to do regular exercise when overweight. Indeed, according to Dr Steven  Blair, being 'fat and fit' you can be as healthy as being 'lean and fit' (although personally I think it would be easier in the long term to maintain a high level of fitness if you are in the 'normal' weight/BMI range than if you are overweight/obese). This encouraged me to pursue a daily walking regime immediately, rather than postpone 'getting serious' about my fitness until after I'd shed my excess weight.

However, I still thought that simply walking, while being 'better than nothing' was a poor substitute for real exercise - such as going jogging or running. But with my weight, history of knee and foot problems, and tendency to get heat rash and eczema problems when jogging or running, I thought I'd just have to 'make do' with walking at least 10,000 steps/day.

But apparently walking can be JUST AS GOOD as running in terms of health benefits! This article reported research results (studies of 33,000 runners and almost 16,000 walkers) that found that walking had essentially the same risk reduction effects as running for Hypertension, Cholesterol, and Diabetes Mellitus. To quote the abstract:

"The risk reductions were not significantly different for running than walking for diabetes mellitus (P=0.94), hypercholesterolemia (P=0.06), or CHD (P=0.26), and only marginally greater for walking than running for hypercholesterolemia (P=0.04)."

One proviso is that this was the case when adjusted for equivalent energy expenditure - so you'd have to spend more time walking than running to gain the same health benefit (for example, the MET (metabolic equivalent) rating for brisk walking at 4.8 km/h is 3.3, whereas the MET value for running is around 8.0 - so walking 10,000 steps in around 90 mins would only be as beneficial as running for 40 minutes or so.

So, while it is nice to supplement my daily walking regime with a weekly hour of squash and the occasional kayaking trip, I no longer feel that walking isn't 'real' exercise. And my focus is now to increase my weekly average for daily step count, and to increase the pace of my walking as I get fitter. Of course I'd also like to get into the habit of doing an 11 minute '5BX' session every evening if I can manage it.

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