The evidence is clear- Americans as a whole do not participate in enough physical activity. It isn’t just that Americans aren’t exercising, but studies show that even physical movement that is otherwise considered habitual- like shopping, light household cleaning, and general walking about- have all decreased greatly over recent history. Largely attributed to an increase in technology, even small decreases in physical activity can make a significant difference in warding off a slew of health issues including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and even some kinds of cancer. It is particularly noteworthy that physical activity, exercise being on the more strenuous end of the spectrum, has decreased when nearly 36% of Americans are now considered obese and roughly 10% of Americans have diabetes. Experts say that many more Americans are diabetic without being unaware that they are.
Decease in physical activity since the 1960s
The intensity of physical activity is measured using metabolic equivalents (MET), where one MET is defined as the energy it takes to sit quietly. Sources share that for the average adult, this is about one calorie per every 2.2 pounds of body weight per hour; someone who weighs 160 pounds would burn approximately 70 calories an hour while sitting or sleeping. Moderate intensity physical activities are those that burn off three to six times as much energy per minute as you do when you are sitting quietly. Vigorous-intensity activities burn more than 6 METs.
|Light <3.0 METs||Moderate 3.0-6.0 METs||Vigorous >6.0 METS|
|Walking slowly |
Sitting using computer Standing light work (cooking, washing dishes)
Fishing sitting Playing most instruments
|Walking very brisk (4 mph) Cleaning heavy (washing windows, vacuuming, mopping) |
Mowing lawn (power mower)
Bicycling light effort (10-12 mph)
recreational Tennis doubles
Jogging at 6 mph
Carrying heavy loads Bicycling fast (14-16 mph) Basketball game
Recent analysis of energy expenditure for occupations in private industries in the U.S. since the 1960s show that during the 1960s nearly 50% of occupations required at least moderate intensity physical activity. Since then, energy expenditure has slowly declined, with now fewer than 20% of occupations requiring moderate intensity physical activity. This decrease has been measured at roughly 100 fewer calories burned daily in both men and women. This may not seem like a lot, but consider that in under two months, people may gain a pound and over a year that can result in gaining six pounds.
Walking decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes
Data from over 300,000 people (subjects of five studies) that reviewed walking and the impact on the risk of type 2 diabetes found that those who walked regularly (about 20 minutes per day) had a 30% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who did almost no walking at all. A 1999 analysis of the Nurses Health Study also examined the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in over 70,000 female nurses over an eight-year period. Walking was strongly associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, with those that walked at a 20-30 minute/mile pace showing a 14% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and those that walked faster, <20 minutes/mile, showed a 41% lower risk.
Research shows walking is a game changer for health
It isn’t just the risk of diabetes that decreases significantly with walking. In a 13-year study of older adults consisting of 62,178 men and 77,077 women, participants who walked at least 150 minutes per week were about 20% less likely to die than their inactive counterparts.
Experts and medical providers have largely encouraged an increase in physical activity to help support improved wellness. Exercise has been found to decrease the risk of many health concerns from heart disease to diabetes, pain levels, has been shown to improve sleep and mental health, as well as helps decrease weight.
When you walk makes as much of a difference as how much you walk
The timing of when people walk has also been shown to impact the benefit to the body. One study examined people with type 1 diabetes that walked after meals. The results of the study showed that they had one half the glucose excursion (meaning the fluctuations in blood sugar) compared to those who did not walk after meals. Interestingly, the same study found a similar glycemic benefit in those without diabetes. The researchers concluded, “Walking significantly impacts postprandial [after meal] glucose excursions in healthy populations and in those with type 1 diabetes.”
Jessie Inchauspe, author of Glucose Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Balancing Your Blood Sugar, shares that walking within 60-90 minutes of eating is particularly impactful as that is the time range when blood sugar levels peak. If you find it difficult to head out for a walk after meals, consider that even a small increase in movement is still impactful. Even just standing has been shown to improve blood sugar levels. 2-3 minutes of light walking (around the office, to get the mail, etc) after meals requires more muscle activation than sitting or standing and uses the fuel from the meal at the ideal time when more is circulating in the blood stream, sources share.
New research has shown that an average adult should spend at least 22 minutes walking per day. This works out to 150 minutes per week – which is enough to significantly transform your health, and falls in line with general public health guidelines. Experts share that the guidelines aren’t meant to encompass all physical activity, but rather are the recommended periods of more vigorous exercise that is part of the wider spectrum of physical activity.
Across the board, the message from medical professionals and researchers is that people need to move more and sit less. Any increase in walking and physical activity will benefit health, particularly if an individual’s occupation, lifestyle, commute, or daily habits are more sedentary. But studies do support that the more steps you take and the more brisk the walk, the higher the benefits. If you don’t yet meet the minimum recommendations for steps per day, slowly work towards that as a goal. Add an additional five minutes per day over the course of a week, and work towards increasing the duration. Your body will thank you for each step.
-Tudor-Locke C, Schuna JM Jr. Steps to preventing type 2 diabetes: exercise, walk more, or sit less? Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2012 Nov 19;3:142. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2012.00142. PMID: 23189071; PMCID: PMC3500773.