Image: Man taking a walk
George Widman  /  AP file
Walking for 30 minutes five or more days a week, either moderately or briskly, improves cardiorespiratory fitness.
updated 11/14/2005 4:08:48 PM ET 2005-11-14T21:08:48

People who exercise can add three years to their life, and their hearts reap benefits from something as simple as brisk walking a half-hour a day, two studies suggest.

“Three years of extra life: It’s a very clear message that makes it easy to grasp what might be the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle,” said Dr. Oscar Franco, co-author of one of the studies and a researcher at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

In the Rotterdam study, researchers analyzed more than four decades of data from the Framingham Heart Study, a long-running health analysis of suburban Boston residents.

The researchers grouped 4,121 people into three levels of physical activity: low, medium and high. The volunteers, who had kept track of how long they spent doing various activities each day, received scores based on the estimated oxygen consumed for their activities.

Life expectancy at age 50 for the medium activity group was 1.5 years longer than for the low activity group. The high activity group lived 3.5 years longer.

The extra years were lived mostly free from heart disease. The study didn’t give details quantifying high, medium or low activity.

In the second, smaller study, researchers examined what type of real-world walking program would improve heart health.

They found several routines worked: Walking for 30 minutes five or more days a week, either moderately or briskly, improved cardiorespiratory fitness. It worked just as well to walk briskly three to four days a week.

Only fast-paced walking on five or more days a week also led to short-term progress in cholesterol levels.

The study of 492 sedentary adults was not conducted in an exercise lab, but in the real world where demands on people’s time and energy got in the way of their walking goals, said lead investigator Michael Perri of the University of Florida.

That led to one of the study’s most important findings, Perri said: People who were supposed to walk 150 minutes a week actually were walking only 90 minutes a week — and still achieving health benefits.

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Doctors should consider prescribing daily walking, just to get people to walk a few days a week, Perri said.

“If you aim for exercising every day, you’ll probably do four or five days,” Perri said. “If you aim for three or four days, you’re likely to get maybe two days done.”

The studies appeared in Monday’s Archives of Internal Medicine.

Dr. Martha Gulati, a cardiologist and fitness researcher at Northwestern University, said both studies are significant and should guide doctors’ advice to patients and public spending on health.

“We need to know how to prescribe this and how to implement this,” Gulati said. “If we don’t, we’re never going to get to the point where we do prevention. We’re always going to be treating chronic disease.”

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