Heart Health: The Remarkable Impact of Just 3,600 Steps a Day for Older Women

Heart Health: The Remarkable Impact of Just 3,600 Steps a Day for Older Women
06.03.2024
  • New research finds that taking 3,600 steps a day can help lower heart failure risk in older women.
  • The findings also apply to a specific type of heart failure that’s more common in postmenopausal women.
  • Doctors say the findings underscore the importance of regular physical activity.

Research has repeatedly found that regular activity is important for cardiovascular health, but just how much people need is often debated—and changes with age. Now, a new study has pinpointed how active women over 60 need to be, and it’s significantly less than the often-recommended 10,000 steps a day.

The study, which was published in JAMA Cardiology, found that a little activity goes a long way when it comes to older women and heart health—they need just 3,600 daily steps to see a difference in heart failure risk. For the study, researchers had nearly 6,000 American women between the ages of 63 and 99 wear an accelerometer on their hip for up to seven consecutive days, except for when they were in water.1

Neel Chokshi, MD, director of the Penn Center for Digital Cardiology who was not involved in the study, calls 3,600 steps an achievable step count.

“This has pragmatic implications: No matter how old you are, any and all activity is protective for your heart,” he told Verywell.

Other Everyday Activities Protect the Heart, Too

Overall, there were 407 heart failure cases during a mean follow-up of 7.5 years. The researchers found that those who took an average of 3,600 steps a day at a normal pace had a 26% lower risk of developing heart failure, but there were also gains with activities you may not necessarily consider exercise.

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The risk of heart failure was 12% lower for every 70 minutes a day participants spent on light-intensity activities such as self-care, chores around the house, and caregiving. The risk of heart failure was 16% lower for every 30 minutes a day spent on moderate-to-vigorous intensity, defined as walking at a normal pace, climbing stairs, and doing yard work.

Being sedentary was not helpful. The data found that, for every 1.5 hours of being sedentary, the participants had a 17% higher risk of experiencing heart failure.

The study looked at two subtypes of heart failure, including heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF).

“This is a major, unique finding of our study because there is very little published data on physical activity and HFpEF, so we are providing new information upon which other studies can build,” lead study author Michael J. LaMonte, PhD, a research professor of epidemiology and environmental health in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, said in a statement.2

Doctors applaud the study for adding to evidence that being active supports good heart health. Chokshi said that it’s particularly noteworthy that the study looked at HFpEF.

“This subtype of heart failure is more common in women and we have few interventions for treatment, so it’s nice to see this effect,” he said.

The study findings are “encouraging” and helpful data for doctors to share with patients, Jennifer Wong, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of Non-Invasive Cardiology at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, told Verywell. “It allows us to back up what we say about the importance of physical activity, even in relatively low levels,” she said.

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A Note on Sex and Gender Terminology

Verywell Health acknowledges that sex and gender are related concepts, but they are not the same. To reflect our sources accurately, this article uses terms like “female,” “male,” “woman,” and “man” as the sources use them.

Do the Findings Apply to Men?

It’s important to note that the study only looked at women, not men, raising questions about whether these findings apply to other sexes. Doctors said it’s unclear.

“Men would probably show similar benefits because these changes are most likely mediated by improved risk factors, and those should be similar in both men and women,” Sonia Tolani, MD, a sports cardiologist and co-director of the Women’s Heart Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told Verywell.

However, Tolani pointed out that HFpEF is seen more in postmenopausal older women.

“There may be something about the dynamics of exercise in this particular group that was seen more in women than men,” she said.

Chokshi agreed but said the benefits likely transfer to men, too.

“Data from other activity trials have suggested benefits on cardiovascular risk in both men and women,” he said. “I suspect activity would be good for everyone’s hearts.”

Other Important Ways to Protect Against Heart Failure

While physical activity can help lower your risk of heart failure, it isn’t the only option.

“Besides physical activity, healthy diet and continuing with regular healthcare and well visits are important,” Tolani said.

It’s also important for adults to have things like blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol checked regularly by a healthcare professional, Tolani said.

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“We know that treating these risk factors has a huge improvement for cardiovascular health, which reduces rates of coronary disease and other things that are contributors to the development of heart failure,” she said.

Still, she emphasizes the importance of movement.

 “The take-home from this should be that there’s a real power to exercise,” Tolani said. “Time and time again, we see that even minimal activity above being sedentary has an important reduction in cardiovascular risk.”

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