All those mall walkers are onto something: A major study found that a daily stroll keeps older people living longer.
The research suggests that for folks in their 60s, 70s and 80s, walking is powerful medicine. Over a 12-year period, the study found that covering just two miles a day cut the risk of death almost in half.
Clearly, the legions of elderly folks who take time for a daily stroll through the shopping center or around the park already believe this.
Yet among fitness professionals, the subject is surprisingly controversial. Some have questioned whether leisurely paced exercise does much good at all. And there is virtually no carefully done research to show that walking, gardening and such keep senior citizens healthier.
The new study provides evidence of this benefit in older people. Amy A. Hakim and others from the University of Virginia calculated that every extra mile they walk per day lowers their death rate by 19 percent.
“The message is that we should become active and remain active,” said Robert D. Abbott, one of the researchers. “Walking is easy, and it can be quite enjoyable with friends on a nice day.”
Despite walking’s obvious popularity, especially among older people, most Americans have not gotten the message about this or any other kind of exercise.
Dr. Jody Wilkinson, medical director of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas, noted that 60 percent of Americans don’t get enough regular activity to improve their health. And the numbers are probably even worse for the elderly.
The latest study shows “it doesn’t take that much,” Wilkinson said. “Two or three miles at a moderate pace is within the ability of almost everyone.”
The research, published in today’s issue of the New England Journal of medicine, was based on the Honolulu Heart Program, which has followed the health of 8,006 men of Japanese ancestry living on Oahu since 1965.
In this analysis, the researchers looked at 707 nonsmokers who were all fit enough to walk if they wanted to. They were questioned about their walking habits between 1980 and 1982.
In all, 208 of the men died over the following 12 years, but the amount of walking appeared to make a big difference. Twenty-four percent of those who walked more than two miles a day died during this time, compared with 41 percent of those who walked less than one mile daily.
The walkers’ risk of death was especially lower from cancer. Those who walked infrequently were about 2 times more likely to die of cancer than were the two-mile-a-day men.
Walking and other kinds of exercise probably protect the heart and circulatory system by raising HDL, the good cholesterol, and keeping weight down. Experts suspect it may help prevent cancer by beneficial effects on the immune system and hormone levels, among other things.
Last year, a surgeon general’s report urged Americans to try to get enough moderate physical activity to burn up 150 calories a day. This would amount to a half-hour of walking daily or 20 minutes of swimming laps.
Dr. Charles Hennekens of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston cautioned that the latest study should not discourage those who can’t force themselves to walk a full two miles a day. Even less exercise, when done regularly, is better than nothing.
Abbott said he believes the results apply to other groups of elderly people who were not directly studied, including women and non-Asian men.