More than 100 million peopleTrusted Source in the United States have diabetes or prediabetes.

It’s also estimated that more than 100 million Americans have high blood pressure.

Those numbers have been rising, but researchers say there is a free and relatively easy way to reduce your risk of developing one of these diseases.

It’s the simple act of walking.

The standard recommendation for physical fitness is 10,000 steps a day.

But even a fraction of that can work, according to the authors of a new study.

The researchers state that middle-aged study participants who walked the most steps per day over an average of 9 years had a 43 percent lower risk of diabetes and a 31 percent lower risk of high blood pressure.

The research was presented today at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“The benefits of exercise, specifically walking, have been studied extensively the past several years,” David DaPrato, DPT, who works in sports rehabilitation and is a professional triathlon coach, told Healthline. “There is good reason behind getting your 10,000-plus steps in each day.”

What researchers discovered

The study was based on data from 1,923 participants in the national Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study.

In addition to their overall conclusions, the researchers also reported that every set of 1,000 steps taken daily over the course of 9 years lowers the risk of obesity by 13 percent in middle-aged women.

In the study, participants wore accelerometer devices to measure physical activity at least 10 hours a day for at least 4 days.

The average age of the participants was 45. Almost 60 percent were women and about 40 percent were black.

The average follow-up time was 9 years.

Those with the highest step count were 61 percent less likely to have obesity, compared to women who walked the least.

The study didn’t show any association between a lower risk of obesity and the number of daily steps walked by men.

“Many people think that walking is not considered exercise and that walking on a daily basis is not enough to have a positive effect on your physical and mental health,” said Cyrus Khambatta, PhD, the co-founder of Mastering Diabetes, an online coaching program helping people with diabetes reverse insulin resistance. “For people with diabetes, even a short 30-minute walk before or after a meal has profound impact at lowering your blood glucose levels.”

Those 10,000 steps

The 10,000 step benchmark goes back to 1965 when a Japanese scientist reportedly responded to the fitness craze surrounding the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by inventing the pedometer.

It was called the Manpo-kei, which translates to 10,000-steps meter.

It sounded like a semi-lofty but achievable goal. And it stuck.

Of course, there can be variations to all those steps.

“My recommendation is 4,000 to 8,000 steps, but quality matters. Four thousand steps out in the countryside going up and down hills may give better health benefits compared to 8,000 steps in a mall. But it’s still better than nothing,” said Sarah Sato, a nurse practitioner specializing in diabetes who recommends daily steps to her clients.

“We see lovely, whole-person changes when someone starts walking regularly,” Sato told Healthline. “People often find their sleep improves, their mood can be more stable, and their digestion can become more regular.”

Khambatta said the extra benefits can go even further.

“Most people think that walking is only for their heart and diabetes but… being active can also improve blood flow to your brain, which improves cognition,” he told Healthline. “Studies show that taking more steps on a daily basis can also reduce depression and anxiety. Given an increasing number of people diagnosed with mental health disorders, walking is a simple way to dramatically improve your mental health for free and can also be a social activity at the same time.”

DaPrato says to start slowly and your body will adapt. And you may be grateful later when the cold and flu season comes.

“After some time of consistent walking — usually 3 or 4 weeks — (what was) stress is now not so concerning to the body and is considered normal,” he said. “The body has adapted. So, since either exercise or a foreign bacterium is considered a stressor, the body more efficiently responds to invading bacteria once the tissues have adapted to exercise. This is why individuals who exercise regularly don’t get sick as often.”

Beth Auguste, a fitness trainer and registered dietitian, said walking gets blood to where it needs to go.

“Imagine a credit card. Now imagine trying to tear it in half. You can’t,” she said. “Now, imagine that you bend that credit card backward and forward multiple times. High blood pressure is often the result of stiff blood vessels. When you take a walk, your body needs to get more blood to your muscles quickly. If you think about your veins as similar to a hose, this means that the pressure will be increased. And, in the short term, this is a great thing. Your blood is pumping faster and harder and that increased pressure will have a similar effect on your veins, as the credit card. The frequent recurring pressure and release against the walls of your blood vessels may help to create a loosening effect, leading to more relaxed blood vessels and a lower resting blood pressure.”

Some ways to get in those steps

Mimi Secor, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP, FAAN, is a family nurse practitioner and author of “Debut a New You: Transforming Your Life at Any Age.”

She said the habit of walking is more important than the intensity. Among her recommendations on how to incorporate more walking into one’s life:

  • Take the stairs at work.
  • Avoid online shopping and physically go. Park farther from the store.
  • Walk your dog.
  • Do short “bouts” of exercise while reading or watching television.
  • Track your exercise and enjoy the improvements.
  • Walk with a friend instead of sharing a meal just to socialize.
  • Hold work and family meetings while walking.

Medical reference: Healthline