THURSDAY, May 20, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Walk a little, and your body will thank you. Walk a lot, and it will really thank you.
That's the message of a new study that links taking more steps in a day to a lower risk of an extremely common condition known as metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and diabetes.
The research only shows a connection between more walking and better health -- it doesn't prove that simply walking more will make you healthier. Still, the findings suggest that "you don't have to be out there running marathons," said study co-author Peter T. Katzmarzyk, a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La.
Instead, "you just have to incorporate physical activity such as walking into your lifestyle," he said.
The study, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, examined the effects of exercise on metabolic syndrome, which is estimated to affect more than a third of adults in the United States.
People with metabolic syndrome have at least some of the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes -- excess weight in the abdomen, elevated blood pressure, low levels of good cholesterol, high triglyceride (blood fat) levels, insulin resistance or elevated blood glucose levels.
The condition serves as a sort of early warning system, Katzmarzyk said. "If you have two, three or four risk factors, you may have a much higher risk of developing full-blown cardiovascular disease than someone who doesn't," he said.
Many people with excess weight have metabolic syndrome, but people of normal weight can develop it too, he said.
The study authors examined a 2005-2006 study that tracked 1446 adults (with an average age of 47.5) as they went about their days. The participants wore high-quality pedometers (known as accelerometers) that allowed researchers to accurately count the number of steps they took each day and sort them into three groups: "sedentary" (those who took fewer than 5000 steps a day), "low-to-somewhat-active" (5000 to 9999 steps a day), and "active-to-highly active" (10,000 or more steps a day).
After adjusting their statistics so they wouldnt be thrown off by factors like gender and age, the researchers found that almost 56 percent of those who took the least steps had metabolic syndrome, but just 13 percent of those who took the most steps had it. Overall, about a third had metabolic syndrome.
But even adults who were only somewhat active had a better chance of avoiding the syndrome than those who walked the least. Compared to the sedentary group, people in the "low-to-somewhat-active" group had 40 percent lower odds of developing the condition. People in the "active-to-highly active" had a full 72 percent lower odds of developing it.
In addition, each additional 1,000 steps was associated with an 8-13 percent decrease in the odds of a large waist, in a low level of "good" HDL cholesterol, and in high levels of triglycerides.
Those who walked the most were least likely to have risk factors, Katzmarzyk said.
"There was a trend all the way," he said. "It's not that you reach some magical number. Something is better than nothing, and something more than that is even better."
Since the study didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship between walking and lowered odds of metabolic syndrome, other factors could be at play, Katzmarzyk said. For example, people who have metabolic syndrome may be less active because of it.
David R. Bassett Jr., a professor who studies exercise at the University of Tennessee, said the new study is significant because it's more rigorous than previous research examining the connection between steps taken and metabolic syndrome.
"The amount of walking people do is vitally important for their health," Bassett said. "The authors measured the total volume of walking performed, not just walking done in bouts of 10 minutes or more, and not just brisk walking. Plain, old walking is good for your health."
The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has details on the health benefits of walking.