Early in my medical career, I decided to practice both traditional and nontraditional medicine because I believe that both approaches have value for the prevention and treatment of disease. This past Tuesday, I was giving a lecture at the American Lung Association symposium in Chicago. The topic was the importance of nutrition on the development and progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Although the information was important and the lecture was well-received, the physician who presented before me, I believe, had groundbreaking data.
Dr. Michael Busk, a pulmonologist from the Indiana University School of Medicine was the first speaker of the day. His topic focused on the importance of physical exercise in maintaining overall health. It's not necessarily an alternative idea, but certainly not stressed enough in traditional medicine.
Although we have known for decades the importance of exercise in preventing illness, Busk had some extraordinary data that sheds new light on the significance of regular physical exercise. He also carries a pedometer to measure how many steps he takes per day.
I have often wondered why Americans spend more health care dollars than any other country in the industrialized world and yet rank very low on the overall health scale. There are many possibilities for this including poor nutrition as well as a low level of daily exercise. In Europe, people walk more. In the United States, we walk less.
For example, when I was younger, my family only had one car. I walked to school and to friends' homes. I played outdoors. There were no computers, cell phones and the TV offerings were very limited. In other words, daily physical activity was common. Today, physical activity is greatly limited compared to a few decades ago probably because we drive everywhere.
According to Busk, this lack of physical activity has resulted in an increase in many chronic diseases and he presented data to support this hypothesis.
This data indicated that significant improvements in health can be achieved with only 5,000 steps per day. The health benefits associated with 5,000 steps (about 1 to 1½ miles) per day are a 50 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease (statin drugs only reduce that risk by about 17 percent), longer life by several years, weight loss (burning an additional 250 calories per day equals an annual weight loss of about 26 pounds), lower risk of diabetes and better blood sugar control for those with diabetes. Those 5,000 steps per day also are associated with a reduced risk of many cancers, Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and even autoimmune disease. Overall, walking 5,000 steps per day may reduce "all-cause mortality," or death from all causes except trauma, by more than 50 percent.
Without a doubt, medications and medical therapies have saved many lives, but there is good evidence that medications and therapies (and their associated costs) could be reduced if you take 5,000 steps per day. Busk, a busy pulmonologist with his pedometer, takes time for his health and does at least 7,500 steps per day.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.