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updated 5/27/2005 11:07:27 AM ET 2005-05-27T15:07:27

If you wonder what the future holds for you, you may want to look at a pedometer. Recent studies emphasize that the amount of exercise you get independently affects your long-term health, no matter what your weight, blood cholesterol, or blood pressure may be.

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Although weight control can help lower your risk for both heart disease and cancer, so can exercise. For all weight levels, a lifestyle with at least 3.5 hours of exercise a week lowers the risk of death 25 to 30 percent, according to a recent study of more than 116,000 women. In an earlier study, men’s fitness test scores had more impact on their risk of death during the next 10 years than being overweight or obese.

Regular exercise can help lower the risk of several cancers. In a study of women after menopause, participants who had a history of regular vigorous exercise at age 35 had a 14-percent-less risk of breast cancer than less active ones.

Women who were walking briskly for 30 minutes three to five times a week, or did a similar activity for the same amount of time, at the start of the study faced an 18 percent lower breast cancer risk over the next four to five years.

Exercise can also help people with type 2 diabetes. Many of these people suffer from heart disease. A recent Finnish study followed men and women with diabetes who were aged 25 to 74 for almost 19 years.

People with at least moderate levels of physical activity were less likely to die from heart disease or any other cause than less active adults. The benefits of exercise applied to a wide range of people: overweight or not, with or without high blood pressure, and nonsmokers or smokers.

As these studies show, exercise can help protect us from illness. But our quality of life depends on much more. It includes the ability to walk enough for errands or trips, carry packages or suitcases, and climb stairs easily.

A new study from the U.K. links the ability to perform such routine activities with regular physical activity in middle age.

Pedometer can measure progress
In this study, 2.5 hours of moderate exercise (such as biking or leisurely swimming), or one hour of vigorous activity (such as running or swimming laps) per week was protective. Unfortunately, most of the healthy middle-aged people who began the study did not meet these minimum standards. Nine years later, most of them had developed some physical limitations.

Experts often recommend physical activity in terms of time. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture repeat advice from the American Institute for Cancer Research that we should aim for at least one hour of moderate activity every day.

Of course, those who have been sedentary will benefit from any increase in activity. These people should try for 30 minutes a day most days of the week, until they can do more.

Another way to measure physical activity is to use a pedometer. This device clips on your waistband and counts the steps you take. A new study compares the actual physical activity between women who followed a 30-minute guideline and women who tried to reach 10,000 steps a day.

Before the study, both groups walked less than 7,000 steps each day. The women who aimed for 30 minutes of exercise reached 9,505 steps on the days in which they included a 30-minute walk.

But on the days without this walk, they reached less than 5,600 steps a day. In contrast, the women who tried for 10,000 steps averaged 11,775 steps when they met their goal. Even when they fell short, however, they still averaged 7,780 steps.

Perhaps a time goal leaves us vulnerable to an all-or-nothing attitude. If we can’t fit in 30 minutes or an hour of exercise, we may give up.

Wearing a pedometer, on the other hand, may help us see how seizing each opportunity to be active adds up for our health.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive Reprints

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