When I wrote about exercise fitness a few months ago, I had this to say about how it helps us continue to maintain our mental processes and good health:  “Regular exercise helps prevent weight gain and obesity. It lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. Exercise decreases the odds of contracting diabetes and certain cancers including breast and colon. The other benefit includes the fact that exercise strengthens muscles and bones and helps prevent debilitating falls. Exercise is a powerful tool to protect the brain against the detrimental effects of aging. Exercise rushes oxygenated blood to help nourish brain cells and fosters the growth of new blood vessels to critical areas of the brain. By exercising, you can improve a variety of cognitive functions that tend to increase with age and the onset of dementia. A number of studies have shown that people who exercise have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.”

I had earlier written that an easy way of exercising is to simply walk more, from 3,000 to 10,000 steps being recommended. Three thousand is a good start. Brisk walking for 30 minutes for five days each week would be the goal. Walking for two and a half hours a week — that is just 21 minutes a day — can cut your risk of heart disease by 30%.   

The Harvard Health Letter reports that even a one minute jaunt can pay off. For every minute of brisk walking that women did throughout the day, they lowered the risk of obesity by 5%. About 4,400 steps has been associated with a 41% reduction in mortality compared to walking 2,700 steps a day.  Walking 7,500 steps was associated with a 65% reduction.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that there is no scientific basis for the need to take 10,000 steps. (It originated when a Japanese company launched a pedometer with that name in English.) If you get to 10,000 steps there are obvious health benefits, but it is too difficult a goal for most people and not truly necessary.

Now there is documented evidence obtained from a large prospective study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that addresses whether step volume or intensity is associated with premature mortality among middle aged Black and white men and women.

A total of 2,110 adults were included in the study with a mean follow up of 10.8 years. The mean age was of 45.2 years, 57% were women.  Range of ages was from 38 to 50 years.  Participants taking at least 7,000 steps per day had a 50 to 70% lower risk of mortality. There was no association of step intensity with mortality regardless of the adjustment for step volume. The conclusion based on the data found that higher daily step volume was associated with a lower risk of premature all-cause deaths among Black and White middle aged women and men.  

The study was part of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study. Daily steps volume was classified as low (less than 7,000 steps per day) and high (greater than 10,000 steps a day) The results agree with the findings published in the Wall Street Journal relative to the need to take 10,000 steps.

In addition to the JAMA study, there is also evidence that regular exercise may help lessen “chemo brain” among women being treated for breast cancer.  This news is in accordance to a large scale new study of the associations between physical activity, chemotherapy and cognition. The study involved more than 5,000 women with breast cancer and found that those who were most active before, during or after their treatment were the least likely to develop the memory decline and foggy thinking that characterize the effect chemotherapy has on the brain. Cognitive problems are nearly universal among women undergoing treatment.  

In an early study, researchers found that women’s ability to concentrate and remember worsened significantly after they began chemotherapy, and the falloff lingered or even accelerated through the six months after the treatment ended.

Experts increasingly recommend exercise for people with cancer of almost any type, including breast cancer, since it typically combats certain of the more debilitating side effects of treatment, such as fatigue and muscle loss. Perhaps even more important, in high risk cancer patients, exercise is linked to significantly lower risks of recurrence and longer life spans.

Patients recently diagnosed with cancer should discuss the regimen with their physician and find which exercise routine would be the safest and most feasible based on current health and situation. According to one specialist, small steps are still steps, and if you cannot manage a brisk 30 minute walk, try walking to the mailbox and back. Any movement no matter how brief or gentle, is likely to have benefits.

Final Thoughts

Being physically active provides substantial health benefits for many conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and several cancers, as well as improving the quality of life. The number of steps taken each day is a meaningful metric for quantifying total daily activity.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.