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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

​Mile a Day May Keep the Doctor Away – Women Who Walk Report Fewer Health Problems, Say Pitt Researchers

PITTSBURGH, August 10, 1998 — Starting a simple walking program and sticking with it may be the best way to prevent heart disease and reduce the number of surgeries, hospitalizations and falls later in life, say researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Their results, published in the August 10 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, showed that women who started a walking program 10 to 15 years ago as part of a clinical trial at Pitt were more likely to remain active and reported fewer cases of heart disease than their counterparts who weren’t part of the walking program and who tended to be less active.

"Our research lends support to the growing base of knowledge that moderate levels of physical activity such as walking are good for your health," commented Andrea Kriska, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. "We believe this study is the first one to report that older women who integrate physical activity into their life over a long-term basis gain health benefits as a result of their increased activity levels."

The first Physical Activity and Health Report issued by the United States Surgeon General has emphasized the importance of a physically active lifestyle in the prevention of many diseases and their risk factors. Despite the mountain of evidence that has linked physical activity with good health and well being, a large portion of Americans still lead sedentary lives. As men and women age, their physical activity decreases, with older women typically constituting the least active group.

"Walking is ideal for older people or anyone wishing to start and maintain a program of physical activity. It’s easy, it’s safe, you don’t need any special equipment except for a good pair of walking shoes and you can do it anywhere, anytime," commented Dr. Kriska. "It’s an exercise that people easily can integrate into their everyday routine, which is why we based our intervention on a walking program consisting of 30 minutes about five days a week."

To measure the effectiveness of the original intervention as well as the long-term effects of physical activity in older women, Dr. Kriska’s team, led by Mark Pereira, a doctoral student then at the GSPH, contacted 196 women who were part of a walking study that started 15 years ago. The initial study had examined the effects of a regular walking routine on bone health in postmenopausal women. The researchers wanted to follow up on their health status and find out if the women were still walking. Each participant had been assigned either to the walking group or the control group and underwent an assessment to determine baseline exercise habits.

As part of the initial study, participants were monitored for more than 2.5 years to determine changes in physical activity levels. Those assigned to the intervention group began a comprehensive program of walking at least seven miles a week either alone or in a group and were required to keep a walking log. Initially, Pitt researchers found that 80 percent of the women in the walking group walked an average of five or more miles per week for 2.5 years. After a decade, the original walking group still reported walking more miles per week and were more likely to participate in other sports and recreational activities than women in the control group.

"Our results suggest that a permanent lifestyle change has been made in most of the women from the intervention group," remarked Mark Pereira, Ph.D., lead author on the study and epidemiology fellow at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Pereira conducted the research at Pitt as a graduate student in the epidemiology department at the GSPH. "The increase in activity seemed to be across the board in the intervention group. The women who were inactive at the beginning of the study were walking more at the end of the study, and even those women who were already active at the start of the intervention experienced an increase in their physical activity levels. Not only did the active women increase the number of miles walked, but they maintained this higher level of activity for more than 10 years."

The most striking findings were the links between exercise and better health, said Dr. Kriska. "Although the results were not statistically significant, we still found that women who continued to walk experienced fewer cases of heart disease." The active walking group also reported half as many hospitalizations, orthopaedic surgeries and other types of surgery.

New funding from the National Institutes of Health will enable the Pitt researchers to continue follow-up studies of this group of women, which will provide valuable information on the health benefits of walking for older women.

For additional information about Pitt’s GSPH, please access http://www.publichealth.pitt.edu on the World Wide Web.

 

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