Americans not hitting their walking stride

NEW YORK Thu Oct 14, 2010 9:05am EDT

A woman walks past a Kentucky Fried Chicken logo on a glass window of a KFC restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia October 5, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD IMAGES OF THE DAY)

A woman walks past a Kentucky Fried Chicken logo on a glass window of a KFC restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia October 5, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD IMAGES OF THE DAY)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Americans have got some walking to do if they want to catch up with the rest of the world.

They are far outpaced by Australians, Asians and Europeans who walk much more, according to a new study.

Adults in western Australia average 9,695 steps a day. The Swiss followed with 9,650, while the Japanese clocked in with 7,168 steps. But Americans straggled far behind with just 5,117 steps.

"We were surprised that the levels of physical activity were that low," said Dr. David R. Bassett, of the University of Tennessee, the lead author of the study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

"Five thousand steps is really pretty inactive," he added.

Bassett said Americans need to step up for another 30 to 40 minutes per day to shrink the fitness gap. One mile equals about 2000 steps.

The researchers used pedometers to gather step data from 1,136 American adults, who varied in age, gender and geographic location, and compared the results to similar studies in the other countries.

Bassett thinks America's car culture and lack of adequate public transportation provide fertile ground for couch potatoes.

"People do have to exercise," he said. "But our overall environment does not lend itself to promoting an active lifestyle."

He attributes the more active lifestyle of adults in other countries to their greater access to mass transit.

"In Switzerland you might get enough activity just in the course of doing your errands," he explained.

The drive-not-walk mentality has dismal consequences. In the United States, 34 percent of adults are obese. During the past decade Australia, Japan and Switzerland have reported obesity rates of 16 percent, 3 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Bassett said research has shown that just putting one foot in front of the other can help prevent weight gain.

"Even modest amounts of walking on a daily basis can help you to maintain a healthy body weight," he said.

Julia Valentour, who developed the walking program for the American Council on Exercise, said fit people usually take about 10,000 steps per day. But she wants everyone to do more.

"It's low risk, easy to do, and does so much to increase health, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, increase energy and reduce the risk of developing diabetes and cancer," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control guidelines call for 150 minutes per week of a moderate-to-intensive exercise, like walking.

To burn more calories, or ratchet up fitness levels, Valentour recommends variety.

"Try brisk intervals, like one block fast, two blocks slow," she said. "Or walking inclines, like hills."

She urges people to get up and move.

"Begin with a stroll that feels comfortable, then increase your time by 10 percent, or split up your 30-minute walk into 10-minute intervals."

Another good idea is to track progress with a pedometer. She cited a study by VU University Amsterdam Medical Centre in the Netherlands that found that people who lived within a kilometre (0.62 miles) of a park or green area were healthier.

"In our culture, the way we're set up as far as city planning, you can't always walk," said Valentour. "Housing areas are just not near business areas in a lot of places."