Taking more steps throughout the day — along with walking at a greater intensity — is linked to a lower risk for type 2 diabetes among older women, according to a new study published in the journal Diabetes Care.
There is already strong evidence that physical activity has important health benefits in older adults, including in people with diabetes — such as improved cardiovascular health, a lower risk for dementia, and a lower death risk in people on dialysis for end-stage kidney disease. Physical activity may also help people prevent type 2 diabetes in the first place, due to the effect it has of increasing sensitivity to insulin throughout the body.
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Over the past few years, wearable fitness devices have grown in popularity — including devices that count how many steps people take throughout the day. These devices have previously been shown to help increase physical activity in adults with diabetes. For the latest study, researchers were interested in whether activity-tracking devices could help older adults without diabetes stay active enough to meaningfully reduce their risk for developing type 2 diabetes. The study’s participants were 4,838 women — all without diabetes, with an average age of 79 at the beginning of the study — who were followed for up to 6.9 years. At the beginning of the study, each participant wore an activity tracker for one week — which measured total steps taken per day, as well as how many of those steps were taken at a light or moderate-to-vigorous intensity.
More steps per day linked to lower type 2 risk
The researchers found that participants took an average of 3,729 steps per day — far short of the frequent recommendation of 10,000 steps per day for general fitness. On average, participants took 1,875 steps at a light intensity and 1,854 at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity. Overall, taking more steps per day — and taking more steps at a greater intensity — was linked to a lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes during the follow-up period. After adjusting for certain factors known to affect the risk for diabetes, the researchers found that for every 2,000 steps participants took, the risk for type 2 dropped by 12%. When the researchers also adjusted for participants’ body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account), the reduced risk for diabetes went down slightly to 10% for every 2,000 steps taken. This means that by taking 10,000 steps per day, a participant would be 50% less likely to develop diabetes compared with a participant who was completely sedentary.
The researchers found a stronger link between steps taken at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity, compared with steps taken at a light intensity, and diabetes. For every 2,000 steps participants took at a moderate-to-vigorous intensity per day, the risk for type 2 diabetes dropped by 14%, while for every 2,000 steps taken at a light intensity it dropped by only 3%.
The researchers concluded that “regular stepping is an important risk factor for type 2 diabetes prevention in older adults.” What this study couldn’t account for, though, is the possibility that certain factors that can’t easily be measured — like general energy levels throughout the day — might help predict both how many steps people took and the risk for type 2 diabetes. This means that taking more steps might not have actually caused all of the reduced risk for type 2 that the study found. Still, it’s a good bet that taking more steps does help reduce the risk for diabetes in older adults — and walking more throughout the day carries few risks, while offering a wide range of potential health benefits.
Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”