Habitual physical activity that adds up to moving 6,000 or more steps a day may protect women’s health in midlife, because, whether through formal exercises or just the activities of daily life, this level of activity is linked to a lower risk for developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome in midlife women.

This was the finding of new research from Brazil published online ahead of print on 19 November in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS).

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of cardiovascular disease risk factors, including but not limited to, large waist, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that can also be a precursor to full blown type 2 diabetes.

There is plenty of evidence that structured exercise is tied to health risks such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, but this study suggests that habitual physical activity, whether through exercising or just having an active life, is enough to improve women’s health in midlife.

The researchers used data from a longitudinal population study in the city of Passo Fundo, in the far south of Brazil, that started in 1995, limiting their analysis to a snapshot of 292 women aged 45 to 72 years (average age 57).

The women wore pedometers and recorded their daily steps for 7 days, and also underwent health checks that tested cholesterol and blood sugar, and measured waist and hip size to assess abdominal obesity, a known risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

For their analysis, the researchers grouped the women into inactive (under 6,000 steps a day), and active (over 6,000 steps a day).

The results showed that the average number of steps per day overall was 5,251, with the active group (32% of the women) averaging 9,056 and the inactive group averaging 3,472.

The analysis also showed a statistically significant pattern between physical activity and a number of health risks, such that lower levels of physical activity were associated with smoking, having a higher body mass index, and having larger waist and hip measurements.

Women in the inactive group were much more likely to be overweight or obese, and have waist sizes over 88 cm (35 in), even after taking into account other effects like menopause status, smoking, and hormone therapy.

Inactive women were also more likely to have type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

The researchers conclude that:

“Habitual physical activity, specifically walking 6,000 or more steps daily, was associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in middle-aged women, independently of menopause status.”

So it would seem, that for women in midlife, the journey to better health starts with 6,000 steps. For most people, that is the equivalent of walking for about an hour a day.

Studies suggest that people who set themselves goals with a pedometer are more likely to increase their levels of physical activity, lose weight and lower their blood pressure.

But setting yourself a goal of walking for an hour a day can be rather daunting if you are just starting out. It might be easier to achieve such a goal if you break it down and find ways to add in extra steps to what you already do: ten minutes here, and ten minutes there, for instance.

People who have used pedometers successfully to increase their daily activity do things like:

  • Park further away from entrances, eg at the supermarket or workplace,
  • Use the stairs rather than the elevator,
  • Take a walk at break times, and
  • Enjoy a stroll in the evening, for instance after dinner, with family or friends.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD