Conference at UI highlights research on walking's benefits

Good news, iPod devotees: Research indicates that if you listen to music you like while you walk – you don't necessarily have to use an iPod to do it – you tend to ignore fatigue, walk longer and get more benefits out of it.

Those are results from one of the more than 100 studies outlined at a University of Illinois conference on walking and walking research, many of them looking at the health benefits of physical activity.

The benefits, according to an international collection of researchers at the conference, appear to include lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, among other things.

"Walking is a very common leisure activity, the most common leisure activity if you look at national surveys," said I-Min Lee, a doctor and Harvard Medical School researcher who spoke at the conference Friday. "Almost anyone can do it. It's a very (healthy) and ecologically sound means of transportation."

While a number of issues remain to be resolved – among them how the higher levels of physical activity in general and the healthier diets walkers tend to exhibit over nonwalkers come into play – existing studies indicate that walking may lower the risk of heart attacks for men by more than 25 percent and by more than that for women, Lee said.

It also appears to offer at least some benefits, even to the obese, for as little as an hour a week, although other studies indicate the longer you walk the better. Walking 2.5 hours a week or more seems to lower risk of diabetes, said Carl Caspersen, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From the perspective of cardiovascular disease, it may be as good as more intense physical activity, such as jogging, as long as you walk long enough to burn the same amount of energy, Lee said.

Yoshiro Hatano, an internationally known researcher from Kyushu University in Japan, outlined results he's gotten from a program encouraging people to walk 10,000 steps or more a day using pedometers so they can track their progress.

That level of walking at a brisk pace, around 120 steps per minute, appears to have major health benefits, Hatano said, but it isn't a number most people can accumulate only in the normal course of moving around the house, working and the like.

"We need to find some time to go for intentional walks," he said.

The conference, titled "Walking for Health: Measurement and Research Issues and Challenges," started Thursday and wraps up today. It was expected to attract nearly 300 researchers, government officials, public health experts and others from 17 countries.

The UI and its Kinesiology Department, the National Institutes of Health, the American College of Sports Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which focuses on improving health and health care for Americans, are among the conference's sponsors.

In addition to talking about research already done, the conference participants are discussing research that needs to be done and how to go about it, to provide a more accurate picture of walking's benefits in various areas and the level at which they accrue.

They're also talking about such topics as how to measure the impact of community features that are supposed to encourage walking and physical activity and to design communities to do that best.

The good news is that awareness of the need to be physically active to be healthy is at an all-time high, said John Peters, director of Proctor & Gamble's Nutrition Science Institute.

"The bad news is we're losing the battle," he said. "Everybody's waistline is expanding on average."

Peters said walking and other physical activity isn't enough at feasible levels to offset American's food intake.

"We're eating inappropriately, too much for the level of energy expenditure," he said. "Great-tasting, inexpensive food is everywhere. Portion size is at an all-time high. I think we're going to have to change the way we live in some way, shape or form."

But Peters said an examination of people who have lost a significant amount of weight and maintained their weight loss showed 90 percent of them engage in a fair amount of physical activity to do it, and 75 percent of those walk, on average, more than 10,000 steps a day.

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