Walking associated with reduced risk of dementia, cardiovascular disease and cancer
- Participants in a prospective study who walked more had a significantly reduced risk of dementia, premature mortality (all causes), mortality from cardiovascular disease, and cancer incidence.
- The optimal beneficial effect of walking is obtained at almost 10,000 steps/day for the risks of dementia, premature death and cancer.
- As little as 3,800 steps/day is associated with a 25% reduced risk of dementia, half the maximum effect (50%) obtained at 9,800 steps/day.
- Higher intensity (steps/minute) of walking was associated with favourable effects on premature death and the incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Several studies published to date suggest that increasing the number of daily steps is important to prevent the development of chronic diseases and premature death. We often hear in the news or on social media that 10,000 steps/day is the target to reach to enjoy the maximum health benefits. However, some studies indicate that at 6,000 to 8,000 steps/day, the maximum protective effect is achieved and that taking more steps does not significantly reduce the risk of death from all causes, for example. However, there is relatively little data on the subject, and the studies published to date do not distinguish between the different types of walking (daily life vs. exercise) and have paid little attention to the relative importance of walking intensity or cadence.
A prospective study recently examined the dose-response association between the amount (number of steps/day) and intensity (cadence) of walking and the incidence of dementia. The study, which lasted an average of 6.9 years, was carried out among 78,430 people aged 40 to 79 who were part of the UK Biobank cohort. Participants wore an accelerometer around their dominant wrist 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for at least 3 consecutive days and had no diagnosed cardiovascular disease, cancer or dementia at the start of the study. From the data collected by the accelerometer, it was possible to determine:
- the total number of steps/day;
- the number of steps related to activities of daily living (e.g., walking from one room to another), defined as less than 40 steps/minute;
- the number of steps taken during intentional physical activity, defined as 40 or more steps per minute (e.g., walking for exercise);
- the maximum 30-minute cadence (i.e., the average number of steps per minute recorded for the 30 minutes, not necessarily consecutive, when the cadence was maximal).
By the end of the study, 6.9 years after its start, 866 participants had developed dementia. The results show a nonlinear association between the number of total steps/day and the risk of dementia. The risk of dementia decreases with the number of total steps/day up to a 51% decrease at 9,826 steps/day. A number of steps/day of 3,826 is associated with a reduction in the risk of dementia by 25%, or half of the maximum effect.
Figure 1. Dose-response association between total daily steps taken and incidence of dementia. Adapted from del Pozo Cruz et al., 2022.
For the number of steps related to daily life, the optimal dose was 3,677 steps/day, with a 42% reduction in the risk of dementia. Regarding the number of purposeful steps, the optimal dose was 6,315 steps, with a decrease in the risk of dementia by 57%. For the maximum cadence over 30 minutes, the optimal dose was 112 steps/minute, with a reduction in the risk of dementia of 62%.
Associations with risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer
In a second publication by the same researchers and with the same UK Biobank cohort mentioned above, the dose-effect association between the amount and intensity of walking and premature mortality, mortality due to cardiovascular diseases, and cancer incidence was examined. During the seven years of the study, 1,325 participants died from cancer and 664 participants died from cardiovascular disease.
The risk of premature mortality decreases with increasing number of total steps/day, up to approximately 10,000 steps/day. For every additional 2,000 steps, the risk of premature death decreases by 8%, 10% and 11%
Figure 2. Dose-response association between total steps walked/day and all-cause mortality (panel A), cardiovascular disease mortality (panel B), and incidence of 13 cancers known to be associated with a low level of physical activity (panel C). Adapted from del Pozo Cruz et al., 2022.
The strengths of this study are the very large cohort size and the use of accelerometry and algorithms that helped distinguish walking steps from other ambulatory activities (a problem in some previous studies). Among the limitations, there is firstly that this type of study, of an observational nature, does not make it possible to establish a causal link. Second, the accelerometry data at the start of the study was collected only once and therefore may not fully reflect participants’ walking habits. However, multiple measurements carried out 4 years after the start of the study indicates that there is little variation between the data obtained during the different measurements. In addition, there remains a risk of reverse causation, i.e. that the disease (dementia, cardiovascular, cancer) could be the cause of a low number of steps, despite certain precautions taken by the researchers to minimize this risk.
The researchers are of the opinion that the right part of the dose-response curves does not reflect a real reduction in the favourable effect of walking after 10,000 steps, but rather reflects the scarcity of walking data or events (diagnoses of dementia, cardiovascular disease, death) for these few great walkers. In addition, some particularly health-conscious participants may have set a target (popularized in the media) of 10,000 steps/day, which could explain why the optimal effect is observed at this amount of walking.
Walking more and walking faster are associated with health and longevity benefits. Although the optimal health effect seems to be achieved around 10,000 steps/day, it is important to note that walking between 5,000 and 8,000 steps/day allows us to greatly benefit from the positive effects associated with walking. Moreover, there is no minimum threshold for the beneficial association between the number of total daily steps walked and mortality and morbidity. For example, as few as 3,800 steps/day are associated with a reduction in the risk of dementia equivalent to half of the maximum effect obtained at approx. 10,000 steps/day. Future recommendations for the prevention of dementia, cardiovascular disease and cancer could take this new evidence into account and encourage the population to walk more and at a faster pace, in order to optimally benefit from the health benefits of walking.