ORLANDO, Fla. — Simple changes like regularly getting up from your chair, eating an extra homemade meal or two, and running errands on foot might substantially reduce your future risk of disease. Several new studies presented at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific sessions suggest that such small lifestyle adjustments can have big health payoffs, even for people with diabetes.
Public health officials recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. Yet only one in three U.S. adults gets that much, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One reason may be that 30 minutes of brisk walking or cycling “sets the bar too high” for some and they get discouraged, said Bronwyn Kingwell of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia.
But studies that she and others presented show that health gains can occur from doing much less. Where you live, how you get to work, how often you stroll to the copier or turn on the stove can make a difference. In the Australian study, interrupting prolonged bouts of sitting with just three minutes of walking or simple resistance exercises (like knee lifts) each half hour lowered mean blood pressure. With light walking, for instance, systolic blood pressure dropped from 130 millimeters of mercury to 120. Mean diastolic pressure (the bottom number) fell from 82 to 76. The study was conducted in 24 inactive adults with type 2 diabetes.
“The magnitude of the benefit was as much as it is with some antihypertensive drugs,” Kingwell said. While the findings don’t deny the importance of getting more exercise, “this is something you can do at your desk.” Previous studies have found similar results in people who do not have diabetes.
Other research found that adults who moved from a neighborhood with low walkability — where every errand must involve a car — to a neighborhood with nearby shops, stores and schools experienced on average a 54 percent lower risk of high blood pressure. In analyzing the data, the scientists adjusted for other known influences on health, including age, body weight and income level. “More than 50 percent reduction is huge,” said Maria Chiu of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto.
Similarly, Japanese researchers from the Moriguchi City Health Examination Center in Osaka presented data from a study of 5,900 people showing that, compared with drivers, those who took public transportation to work had lower incidence of high blood pressure and diabetes and were less likely to be overweight.
Small differences in eating habits may also matter. Consuming more meals at home was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported. Several studies have also found health hazards from eating meals out, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cites “strong and consistent evidence” that links the frequency of fast food dining with the risk of weight gain and obesity.
In the Harvard study, based on data from 58,000 women and 41,000 men, scientists found that people who ate 11 to 14 homemade meals a week had a 13 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate out more. Eating at home was also associated with lower weight gain over time.
While the study didn’t examine mechanisms, Harvard’s Geng Zong speculated that eating out could encourage consumption of sugary drinks. But the data did not include the type of meal eaten at home. Zong also emphasized the ongoing need for portion control, no matter where the food is eaten. “If your mother is really good at cooking, like mine,” he said, “be careful at Thanksgiving.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated November 20, 2015, to clarify that 30 minutes of exercise is recommended most days, not every day, and how many Americans meet that goal (one in three). Also clarified: The impact of small amounts of exercise on blood pressure was specific to the exercise, not to exercise in general.