8 Minutes of Walking Per Day Could Change Your Life

New research shows that 56 minutes of MVPA a week reduces risk of disability. 

Posted Apr 03, 2019

Until last year, my 83-year-old mother was one of the most physically active older adults I knew; she was constantly on the go. Although my mom has hated working out in a gym, as a native New Englander, she prided herself on approaching day-to-day life with vim and vigor. Mom was always gardening or doing yard work. She mowed the lawn, climbed ladders, raked snow off the roof in wintertime and cleaned leaves from the rain gutters every fall. The wide range of seasonal chores required to maintain her saltbox house in the Berkshires kept her strong. 

 Ruslan Guzov/Shutterstock
Source: Ruslan Guzov/Shutterstock

My mother's gutsy, seize-the-day attitude has always reminded me of Katharine Hepburn, who, according to Jane Fonda, thought that not facing daunting physical challenges and fears head on—like when Fonda had to do a backflip off a wobbly floating dock in On Golden Pond—made people “soggy.” 

Unfortunately, sometime last year, my mother began to have severe mobility issues that made it difficult for her to walk. Medications prescribed by doctors failed to improve her condition. Throughout this period, mom still insisted on climbing the stairs to her second-floor bedroom every night, but it was impossible for her to do weekly activities like driving to play mahjongg with friends in Great Barrington on Tuesdays or taking the Mass Pike to her book club in Boston. Sadly, her annual tradition of taking plein air painting classes on Cape Cod was out of the question last summer.

Being housebound for the past few months pulled the plug on my mom's feeling of social connectedness and sense of belonging to a community. As would be expected, perceived social isolation and loneliness crept in, which have taken a psychological toll. (See, "Mobility Is Key to Maintaining Social Networks As We Age.") To add insult to injury, the less my mother was able to get outside and move her body, the weaker she became. As her leg muscles atrophied, a downward spiral of immobility started to gain momentum. 

For Christmas last year, I insisted on buying my mother a home treadmill, which has turned out to be a game-changer. At first, mom resisted; she didn’t want an ugly piece of exercise equipment dominating her quaint, rustic home. But I'm glad she acquiesced and has made treadmill walking a part of her daily routine.

It’s been awe-inspiring to see the upward spiral that about 10 minutes of daily walking has created in terms of my mother's mobility over the past three months. Yesterday, she drove herself to the Big Y supermarket and Guido’s Fresh Marketplace for the first time in over a year, which made mom feel self-reliant and free-spirited again.

The reason I felt inspired to share this story is because researchers from Northwestern University recently published the results of a four-year study (Dunlop et al., 2019) of 1,564 adults over age 49 which corroborates my anecdote with fresh empirical evidence. These findings were published on April 1 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

As the authors describe in the paper's introduction: "Physical activity guidelines recommend minimum thresholds. This study sought to identify evidence-based thresholds to maintain disability-free status over 4 years among adults with lower extremity joint symptoms."

According to the new paper by Dorothy Dunlop and colleagues at the Feinberg School of Medicine, the minimum threshold of exercise that best predicted disability-free status from immobility over a four-year period is 56 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per week. This dose-response equates to exactly eight minutes per day, seven days a week.

What makes this new study refreshing is that the researchers purposely set the bar low by focusing on a minimum threshold of activity that would benefit people (like my mom) who were struggling with mobility. The goal was to pinpoint a minimum amount of daily activity (e.g., walking on a treadmill) that would result in some tangible, life-changing benefits in terms of staving off disability.

In their abstract, the authors write:

“Attaining an evidence-based threshold of approximately one-hour moderate-to-vigorous activity/week significantly increased the likelihood of maintaining disability-free status over four years. This minimum threshold tied to maintaining independent living abilities has value as an intermediate goal to motivate adults to take action towards the many health benefits of a physically active lifestyle.”

Of course, based on the current recommended physical activity guidelines (Piercy et al., 2018), in order to reap a host of other health benefits from physical activity, adults generally need more than 10 minutes of MVPA per day.

That said, being overzealous or rigid about insisting people stick to recommended guidelines that are unattainable for a wide majority of the population can backfire. Oftentimes, if an exercise goal is too lofty, people adopt an all-or-nothing attitude, throw in the towel, and succumb to sedentarism because they're unaware that even very small doses of exercise can have life-changing benefits. 

"We hope this new public health finding will motivate an intermediate physical activity goal. One hour a week is a stepping stone for people who are currently inactive. People can start to work toward that," Dunlop said in a statement. "This [guideline] is less than 10 minutes a day for people to maintain their independence. It's very doable. This minimum threshold may motivate inactive older adults to begin their path toward a physically active lifestyle with the wide range of health benefits promoted by physical activity." 

The statement above sums up why I was thrilled to email the new study to my mom, along with a simple prescriptive note, to sustain her motivation. I wrote, "Guess what! This study found that just 8 minutes of MVPA a day can keep disability at bay. Keep on (treadmill) truckin'!" If you or someone you know is struggling with mobility issues, please help spread the word that less than 10 minutes a day of walking can stave off mobility-based disability for older adults. 

References

Dorothy D. Dunlop, Jing Song, Jennifer M. Hootman, Michael C. Nevitt, Pamela A. Semanik, Jungwha Lee, Leena Sharma, Charles B. Eaton, Marc C. Hochberg, Rebecca D. Jackson, C. Kent Kwoh, Rowland W. Chang. "One Hour a Week: Moving to Prevent Disability in Adults With Lower Extremity Joint Symptoms.." American Journal of Preventive Medicine (First available online: March 20, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2018.12.017

Katrina L. Piercy, Richard P. Troiano, Rachel M. Ballard, Susan A. Carlson, Janet E. Fulton, Deborah A. Galuska, Stephanie M. George, Richard D. Olson. "The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans." JAMA (First published online: November 12, 2018) DOI: 10.1001/jama.2018.14854

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