RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
About half of all Americans say they exercise regularly. That's the finding of a recent poll NPR conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The most popular exercises are cardio aerobics - using treadmills, elliptical machines and stationary bikes - but leading the pack is going for a walk. As we look at sports and health this summer, NPR's Patti Neighmond reports on how much walking you need to get significant health benefits.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Fryman Canyon's one of those special places in the city of Los Angeles - a bit of country and canyon nestled just off the crest of Mulholland Drive, with gorgeous views of the valley and mountains. It's favored by the canine set - my two dogs love it here - and on any given morning, I'm sure to run into a fellow canyon lover.
STACY MAES: Come here.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
NEIGHMOND: Like Stacy Maes and her perky weimaraner, Astrid.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)
MAES: Come here. Good girl. Are you ready to walk? You ready to walk? Let's go.
NEIGHMOND: Maes is an independent film producer. She has two kids and works mostly at home. She's not fond of organized exercise classes, so she does yoga and fast-paced workout videos at home. But walking is also an important part of her weekly routine. As for Astrid, well, it's just about the best way to start the day.
MAES: In the morning, it's all about Astrid because if she's not tired, then my day can't really go the way I want it to go (laughter). Right, Asy (ph)? Right, puppy?
NEIGHMOND: Maes and Astrid are out here about three to four times a week. In our poll, most people who walk say they, too, walk a few times a week. About a third say they walk every day. Harvard professor Robert Blendon co-directed the poll.
ROBERT BLENDON: Walking, in fact, is, in American's minds, the most frequently done exercise in this country.
NEIGHMOND: So here was my question - is walking really exercise? I asked Dr. Tim Church, a physical activity researcher and professor of preventive medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. And I have to admit, I was surprised by his answer.
TIM CHURCH: Too many people think that you have to exercise really, really hard to get benefit, and nothing could be further from the truth.
NEIGHMOND: In other words, Church says, you don't have to jog.
CHURCH: And you're actually getting probably 95 percent or more of the benefits when you're walking, as compared to jogging.
NEIGHMOND: Lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and overall lower risk of heart disease - and Church has the research to back it up. He headed a study with 464 post-menopausal women who did six months of structured walking on the treadmill right in front of the researchers. One group walked 73 minutes a week, one - 136 minutes, and the other - 190 minutes. Now, the women weren't strolling, but they weren't race-walking either. They were walking at a slow to moderate pace and could easily hold a conversation.
CHURCH: Well, one of the things we really learn from the study - and I guess we shouldn't be surprised, but we were - was how often the group that was only doing 73 minutes a week a week at a very slow pace benefited no matter what we looked at.
NEIGHMOND: Probably the most important benefit, says Church, metabolism of blood sugar improved, and that lowers the risk of diabetes.
CHURCH: Even a little bit of activity can reduce the amount of that dangerous belly fat you have. We know that visceral fat is related to risk of diabetes and related to risk of cardiovascular disease.
NEIGHMOND: Church says he hears it all the time from patients. They've gotten more physically active. They haven't lost weight, but their pants fit differently. It's less belly fat, he says, which is a very good thing. There are many studies showing similar benefits from walking, and you can find them at our website, npr.org. And in the study of post-menopausal women, participants didn't just gain physical benefits.
CHURCH: I love to say that the majority of benefits of physical activity - in this instance, walking - occur above the shoulders.
NEIGHMOND: Less stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression and more energy.
CHURCH: It wasn't a dose response. It wasn't that the more exercise you did, the more your energy levels increased. It was actually what I call threshold. And that was all the exercise groups - the 73-minute-a-week group, the 136-minute-a-week group and 190-minute-a-week group - all increased their levels of energy the same.
NEIGHMOND: So the answer to my original question - there are lots of benefits from walking, no matter what the pace. Federal health officials suggest 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity. That's about 30 minutes, five days a week. If you're walking, it would be a moderate pace, so you can still carry on a conversation. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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