If you walk three thousand steps a day, five days each week, your chances of developing diabetes and becoming obese are significantly reduced, Australian researchers report in the BMJ (British Medical Journal). Increase your daily steps over a five year period to 10,000 steps a day, and the benefits skyrocket. This is the first study to assess the impact of doing a daily step count on insulin sensitivity, the authors claim.

Previous studies have demonstrated how physical activity can reduce insulin resistance and BMI (body mass index), both indicators of looming diabetes. However, none had clearly shown how adding a certain number of steps each day to your physical activity can significantly improve your chances of remaining obese- and diabetes-free.

Most experts advise people to walk 10,000 steps daily. However, doing 3,000 steps five times a week can also work. Also, you don’t have to start off with the 10,000 steps – you can gradually build up over a five year period.

Scientists from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia, gathered data on 592 adults, all of them middle-aged. They had taken part in a nationally representative study aimed at gauging diabetes rates throughout Australia between 2000 and 2005.

The participants underwent a comprehensive health check, and then completed a questionnaire that revealed details on their eating habits and lifestyle. Each adult was given a pedometer and shown how to use it.

A pedometer, also known as a step counter is a portable electronic device that counts each step you take by detecting the motion of your hips – you attach it to your side. It is usually worn on the belt and you keep it on all day – it records how many steps you have walked during the day.

The participants were followed-up again five years later. The researchers also took into account other lifestyle factors, such as smoking status and alcohol intake.

The investigators found that those with a higher daily step count over the five year period generally had a lower BMI, lower waist to hip ratio, and superior insulin sensitivity, compared to individuals with a low daily step count – regardless of what their dietary energy intake was. They added that the more active individuals enjoyed the above-mentioned benefits mainly because of a change in fatness (adiposity) over the five years.

The researchers worked out that sedentary individuals who gradually increased their daily step count to 10,000 over a five-year period would enjoy a threefold improvement in insulin sensitivity compared to those who managed to reach 3,000 steps a day (five days a week) at the end of five years.

It is important to remember that staying at 3,000 steps a day does have its benefits, compared to remaining completely sedentary.

The authors concluded:

“These findings, confirming an independent beneficial role of higher daily step count on body mass index, waist to hip ratio, and insulin sensitivity, provide further support to promote higher physical activity levels among middle aged adults.”

According to the American Diabetes Association:

  • 18 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes
  • 5.7 million Americans have diabetes but don’t know it (undiagnosed)
  • 57 million individuals in the USA have pre-diabetes
  • 186,300 people under the age of 20 years have diabetes in the USA
  • 2 million US teenagers have pre-diabetes
  • 10.7% of Americans over the age of 20 have diabetes
  • 11.2% of American adult males have diabetes
  • 10.2% of American adult females have diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes is an autoimmune disease – the person’s body has destroyed his/her own insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. A person with Type 2 Diabetes does not produce enough insulin, or suffers from ‘insulin resistance’ (the insulin is not working properly). Type 1 Diabetes is unavoidable and is not caused by lifestyle. Type 2 Diabetes is usually caused by being overweight and having a sedentary lifestyle.

“Association of change in daily step count over five years with insulin sensitivity and adiposity: population based cohort study”
T Dwyer, A-L Ponsonby, O C Ukoumunne, A Pezic, A Venn, D Dunstan, E Barr, S Blair, J Cochrane, P Zimmet, J Shaw
BMJ 2011; 342:c7249 doi: 10.1136/bmj.c7249

Written by Christian Nordqvist