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Walk more to slash your stroke risk

New research confirms that regular walking helps to prevent stroke. How many steps are required to make a difference?

Stroke is a serious concern for men, and with good reason. After a major stroke, survivors may face extended rehabilitation and permanent disability. The best medicine for stroke is prevention.

A recent study suggests that one of life’s most mundane activities—taking a walk—can significantly reduce your risk of stroke. The more hours a week men in the study walked, even at a relaxed pace, the lower their stroke risk.

“Exercise is like a medication in many ways,” says Dr. Vasileios-Arsenios Lioutas, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “It helps your blood vessels to function better and, as a result, it helps your brain. You prevent stroke by protecting yourself from the day to day damage to the arterial system.”

TIPS FOR WALKING SUCCESS

Walk with a friend, not alone. It’s more interesting and will motivate you to establish a fitness routine.

Use a pedometer. A pedometer counts your steps. Use one to work up to 10,000 steps a day if you can (and fewer steps is okay, too). Using a pedometer motivates many people to push themselves harder.

Whenever you can, walk outdoors in a stimulating setting, whether town or country.

Invest in comfortable walking shoes
and wear socks made from a soft,
breathable fiber, like cotton.

Join a local walking club or start one of your own. Contact your local YMCA to see if they sponsor any walking clubs. Contact local malls to see if they host any mall walking groups.

Images: Thinkstock

Go to the American Heart Association’s MyWalkingClub.org for helpful resources.

More steps, more benefit

A stroke occurs when a bleeding or blocked artery interrupts blood flow to part of the brain. A study published in January 2014 in Stroke looked at differences in risk of stroke among men in the British Regional Heart Study according to how much they walked. About 3,000 men from 24 different towns participated.

From 1998 to 2000, when the men were in their 60s and 70s, researchers surveyed their walking habits and tracked their health status for 11 years. Over that period, 195 of the men had strokes. That amounts to a 6% chance of stroke in 10 years. But in some of the men, the risk was lower:

  • Men who walked an hour a day on most days of the week had about a 10% lower chance of having a stroke, compared with men who didn’t walk at all or just a few hours a week.

  • The top walkers in the group, who walked three hours a day on average, had a 64% lower risk of stroke compared with those who walked very little or not at all.

So far, no surprises: Walking is good for your brain—and just about everything else in your body. But the really interesting finding was that regardless of whether these men walked briskly or ambled lazily along, total walking time was closely correlated with stroke risk: the longer the men walked, the lower their risk.

In this and many other studies, regular walking is clearly associated with lower risk of stroke—but exactly why remains unclear. Is it something else about these healthy, motivated walkers—perhaps their diet or a low-stress lifestyle—that explains the benefits? It’s possible. But you can rest assured that moderate walking is much more likely to help than harm, so it’s a good bet for preventing stroke.

Should you walk fast or slow?

If you take brisk 20- or 30-minute walks, should you slow down and walk for longer periods? We can’t really come to that conclusion based on this study alone. It is one study in ongoing efforts to determine the optimal type and amount of walking for good health.

Moderation is always a good approach to fitness for non-athletes, especially for anyone with trick knees and hips, or whose tolerance for exercise is diminished because of heart or lung disease. Exercising more intensely won’t necessarily pay bigger dividends.

“There is some research to say that those who do a moderate amount of exercise seem to benefit the most, compared with people who do little or no exercise or who do a lot of very active exercise,” Dr. Lioutas says.

Walking is also beneficial for those whose stroke risk is already higher than average. A study published in December 2013 in The Lancet found that in people at risk of diabetes—and the heart disease that often comes along with it—every additional 2,000 steps of daily walking further reduced stroke risk by 8%. (Two-thousand steps is about a mile.)

Key steps to lower stroke risk

1 Eat a nutritious plant-based diet. You can include a small amount of lean red meat, fish two times a week, and skinless poultry otherwise.

2 Exercise moderately for at least 150 minutes per week (30 minutes a day, five days per week). Leisure activities and chores count, too.

3 Keep your blood pressure under control. The ideal goal for healthy adults is 120/80 mm. But if you have high blood pressure, work with your doctor to reach your treatment goal. That includes taking medication as directed.

4Keep your cholesterol within norms. Consider taking a cholesterol-lowering statin drug if your doctor recommends it.

5 Don’t consume more than two standard alcoholic drinks per day. A standard drink is 5 oz. of wine, 12 oz. of beer, or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof liquor)

6 Don’t smoke—or quit if you do.

How much you need to walk

The highest performers in the Stroke study were motivated enough to pound out three hours of walking a day. But to reduce stroke risk, you need only take the first step. “We don’t mean swimming five miles and running a marathon,” says Dr. Lioutas. “We mean walking 30 minutes or more a day consistently.”

If you are not exercising regularly, any increase in your daily steps will bring about a noticeable boost in cardiovascular fitness within a few weeks. You’ll feel lighter on your feet and be able to walk longer with less resting.

Walking while doing chores at home or while shopping all count toward your daily walking goals. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking farther away from the grocery store can also make a dent. The key thing is to just get moving if you are not active enough.

“I would really emphasize that first of all, no matter what you have done in the past you can always change your lifestyle,” Dr. Lioutas says. “That change is guaranteed to have a very beneficial effect.”

Posted by: Dr.Health

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