When it comes to walking, the easy part is understanding the benefits: Regular, brisk walks can strengthen our bones, help control blood sugar, help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and the list goes on. The hard part is finding the time to fit it in.
Engineering physical activity back into Americans' daily lives is the goal of an educational campaign launched by Kaiser Permanente,an Oakland, Calif.-based health plan.
There are tons of tips and resources online, with the goal of creating a culture of walking. Kaiser Permanente even seems to be walking the walk with its own employees.
"We actually do have walking meetings at Kaiser Permanente, believe it or not," says executive Ray Baxter. "My team is pretty productive, so it must be working." Baxter believes walking together — as opposed to sitting down at a table — can change the dynamics of interactions for the better (think consensus building and brainstorming).
So, how much exercise do we really need to get all the benefits that are touted?
A lot of folks here at NPR have signed up for a 10,000-steps program sponsored by our health-plan provider. I've seen colleagues strap on pedometers to keep running tallies, and what they're learning is that it can be tough to get 10,000 steps — which equates to about 5 miles of walking — into a work day.
But experts who have crunched the numbers on how much we need to walk say, instead of focusing on steps, set a goal of 30 minutes of walking a day, five days a week.
Baxter says 150 minutes a week "has some pretty extraordinary effects on your health." That's a lot less than the nearly two hours a day it can take to reach 10,000 steps.
Studies show this 30 minutes a day is the amount of exercise needed to get serious reductions in the risk of lifestyle diseases that so many Americans are living with.
"The rule of thumb is that you get roughly half the reduction [about a 50 percent reduction] in the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes at the 150-minute mark," Baxter says. When people sustain this regular activity, the long-term benefits for bones and weight maintenance are measurable, too.
Of course, for those who are ready to push past 150 minutes a week, more exercise can be better. When you increase the intensity, however, you have to balance the benefits with the risk of injury.
So if you're ready to pick up the pace and you're wondering how high you need to get your heart rate, here's a rule of thumb: Walk briskly enough that it's still possible to carry on a conversation but no longer comfortable to sing.
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Today in "Your Health," how runner's high shaped the early evolution of humans.
GREENE: But you have to walk before you can run, and so let's start there. Many people have embraced this idea that to be healthy, they should walk 10,000 steps every day.
INSKEEP: Even your favorite radio network has been encouraging its employees, by handing out pedometers. But some experts are not sure you really need to walk four or five miles per day, which is what 10,000 steps would be. NPR's Allison Aubrey investigates.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you happen to have a boss who thinks you're not working unless you're sitting in your cubicle, then clearly you don't work for the man I'm about to introduce you to. Ray Baxter is his name.
RAY BAXTER: We actually do have walking meetings at Kaiser Permanente, believe it or not. My team seems pretty productive, so it must be working.
AUBREY: Baxter is an executive at the Oakland, California-based health plan. He says he likes how walking can change the dynamics of interactions.
BAXTER: You're trying to solve a difficult problem, what do we typically do in America? We sit across from each other. We make points with our hands. We try to persuade the other person to our point of view. If you have that same conversation walking, the two of you are walking in the same direction. You may have different points of view, but you're engaged in a common endeavor and you're more likely to come to agreement, and come up with some great ideas.
AUBREY: So there you have it. Walking as a means to gin up good ideas and build consensus. But exactly how much walking is enough? Baxter says there was a time when he believed people had to go to the gym for intense power workouts.
BAXTER: I've got to admit, I was a little bit of a skeptic at first. And I started to look at the science that was being produced around this. Thirty minutes of walking a day, five days a week, 150 minutes a week, has some pretty extraordinary effects on your health.
AUBREY: Wait, so just 30 minutes a day? That's a lot less than the nearly two hours or so it takes to meet the 10,000-step goal. And Baxter says. There's no need to focus on counting steps at all, as long as you're hitting the 30-minute mark five times a week.
BAXTER: It isn't really whether I take 10,000 steps or 5,000 steps. It's whether I'm getting that 150 minutes a week. So there's something that appears to be a little magical about that 150-minute mark.
AUBREY: Studies show this is the amount of exercise needed to get serious reductions in the risk of lifestyle diseases that so many Americans are living with.
BAXTER: The rule of thumb is that you get roughly a half a reduction in your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes at the 150-minute mark.
AUBREY: But Baxter says you can't just lollygag or stroll leisurely. You've got to get your blood flowing, and your heart rate up.
BAXTER: All right. I'm going to pick up the pace a little now.
AUBREY: You want to be able to carry on a conversation, but get your heart rate high enough that it makes it tough to sing.
BAXTER: I think you can hear, I'm breathing a little heavily while I'm having this conversation with you. Please don't ask me to sing.
AUBREY: Oh, come on. I bet you can sing.
BAXTER: Oh, gosh. You're really putting me on the spot here to think of a song to sing while I'm walking.
AUBREY: How about the Beatles?
BAXTER: (Humming) I guess I'm not walking fast enough, huh?
AUBREY: Nope. Ray, it sounds like you need to pick up the pace.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.