Magic health numbers: Physicians analyze new research and offer advice
Magic health numbers: Physicians analyze new research and offer advice
Newswise | October 08, 2019
We’ve all heard them—those popular “magic” numbers that serve as goals to help us manage our health and achieve optimal wellness. But is it really important to walk 10,000 steps and drink eight glasses of water each day? Will cutting 300 calories a day promote weight loss and improve overall health? And how much coffee is too much?
Three Western Connecticut Medical Group (WCMG) physicians—Dr. Maura Conway, Newtown Primary Care, Dr. Nick Florio, Ridgefield Primary Care, and Dr. Mojisola Ukabi, Brookfield Primary Care—summarized research and the “why” behind several popular health numbers. Here’s their analysis, as well as some recommendations based on their extensive experience advising patients on all aspects of health and wellness.
Is 10,000 steps a meaningful number?
For many years, walking 10,000 steps per day has been considered the “magic” number for optimal health. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine recently published results from an observational Women’s Health Study focused on whether increased steps per day are associated with lower mortality rates among older women.
The study found that participants who walked as few as 4,400 steps per day experienced lower mortality rates when compared to participants who walked 2,700 steps per day. And, the more steps participants took per day, the more their mortality rates dropped. However, the study showed that mortality rates leveled off at 7,500 steps, meaning that study participants who walked more did not have significantly lower mortality rates.
WCMG physicians agree that although the key takeaway point from the research is accurate—being active during the day can have health benefits—walking 10,000 steps is not a magic number for everybody, especially because 10,000 steps is not a scientifically-derived number.
“10,000 steps was established because it’s almost five miles, and walking five miles a day is good,” said Dr. Conway.
According to WCMG physicians, finding the right type of activity for your lifestyle and fitness/mobility level—as well as setting goals that motivate you to gradually move more—are the best steps you can take toward improving your health.
“Activity level needs to be patient-centered. For someone who is very active, 10,000 steps won’t be impactful. And for someone who is not very active, a goal of 10,000 steps a day might be discouraging and lead them to give up,” said Dr. Conway.
“People shouldn’t be discouraged if they get a wearable tracker and they don’t reach 10,000 steps per day. If a patient can’t walk or can’t meet 10,000 steps, they should talk with their doctor about other activities they can do,” said Dr. Florio.
Dr. Florio said that keeping track of the length and intensity of your exercise sessions is also an effective alternative to counting steps and can result in health gains.
“I follow the American Heart Association guidelines, which state that most people should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity spread throughout the week. In addition to physical activity, people should add resistance or weight training at least two days per week,” said Dr. Florio. “Examples of moderate-intensity activity include a brisk walk, slow bicycling, gardening, dancing, or water aerobics.”
Bottom line: Although popular fitness trackers and health guidelines promote walking 10,000 steps, daily activity goals should be personalized and reflect your fitness/mobility level, lifestyle, preferences, and abilities.
Can you improve your overall health by cutting 300 calories a day?
Study results recently published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology found that participants lost an average of 16 pounds during a two-year period when they cut their daily calorie intake by about 300 calories. In addition to weight loss, researchers also observed that participants who restricted their daily calorie intake showed decreased inflammation and improvements in cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar control (which reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes).
“The research results make sense because eating fewer calories will help people lose weight over time. Maintaining a healthy weight contributes to overall better health and improved mobility,” said Dr. Conway. “Establishing a target number of calories to cut per day can make it easier for some people who are working on losing weight. However, weight loss should be patient-centered because the number of daily calories each person needs to cut to lose weight will vary.”
Dr. Florio said that it is often difficult for people to significantly reduce their caloric intake. In this study, for example, researchers wanted participants to cut their caloric intake by 25%. However, participants were only able to reduce the number of calories they consumed by 12%.
Dr. Florio said that some people might also have trouble cutting a certain number of calories or following a specific diet.
“I talk to patients about not dieting, but instead making sustainable, healthy, and long-term changes to their eating habits,” said Dr. Florio.
Dr. Ukabi agrees that there is some truth to this research, but it’s not specific to cutting 300 calories per day. She recommends an “everything-in-moderation” approach to weight loss.
“It’s good to cut calories if you want to get to or maintain a healthy weight, but don’t cut calories by depriving yourself of what you enjoy,” said Dr. Ukabi. “Most people tend to ‘cheat’ when they deprive themselves of certain foods. So if you love bacon, eat one piece instead of the four pieces you might normally eat. That way, you still get the taste, but with fewer calories.”
Bottom line: Reducing your calorie intake over time may help you lose weight and improve your overall health, but the number of calories each person needs to cut to achieve health gains will vary. As an alternative to counting calories, you can also reduce your calorie intake by making sustainable, long-term changes to your eating habits and portion sizes.
How much coffee is really okay?
There is a lot of conflicting research out there about how much coffee is too much, and whether coffee is good or bad for your health. For example, a study conducted by researchers at Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom suggested that drinking up to 25 cups of coffee per day is safe for heart health. However, another study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that drinking more than six cups of coffee per day is associated with a moderate increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Coffee intake research is conflicting,” said Dr. Conway. “Although some research suggests that too much coffee can be harmful, other studies suggest that drinking coffee could lower the risk of developing certain health conditions, such as heart disease.”
Drs. Conway, Florio, and Ukabi said that they advise most patients to drink coffee in moderation. However, patients with certain health conditions may need to be aware of how coffee affects their body.
For example, Dr. Ukabi said that if you experience heart palpitations after drinking coffee, you should talk to your doctor—you may be drinking too much.
“I usually only talk to patients about caffeine intake if it might be related to another health condition, such as bladder irritation, heart disease, or insomnia,” said Dr. Florio. “In general, two-to-four eight-ounce cups of coffee per day are a normal, healthy amount for people who do not have an underlying health condition.”
Also, Dr. Florio said it’s important to know what researchers consider to be a “cup” of coffee.
“What you buy in the store is usually much more than one cup. It’s also important to know how much caffeine is in the coffee, as different types of coffee have varying amounts of caffeine,” said Dr. Florio.
WCMG physicians also advise patients to be conscious of what they are adding to their coffee and the effect it may have on calorie intake.
“Black coffee is best because you can avoid added calories and sugar from cream and sweeteners,” said Dr. Ukabi.
Bottom line: A few cups of coffee per day are safe for most people who do not have other health conditions. However, you should pay attention to the amount of caffeine the coffee contains and the size of the coffee—as well as how drinking coffee affects your body—to make sure you aren’t drinking too much. You should also be aware of how added sweeteners or cream may impact your calorie intake.
Do you really need to drink eight glasses of water a day?
There are many different recommendations and formulas for figuring out how much water you should drink each day. Although there’s no question that your body needs adequate hydration to function at its best, WCMG physicians agree that water intake needs vary from person to person and should be based on diet, activity level, urine output, and health conditions.
For example, if people are breathing heavily, sweating a lot, or are dealing with diarrhea or another acute illness, they should increase their water intake to make up for water loss.
“Eight glasses of water a day isn’t one-size-fits-all. One person may need eight glasses of water per day, and another may need just two or three,” said Dr. Florio.
Drs. Conway, Florio, and Ukabi said that monitoring water intake becomes more important for people who have medical conditions such as congestive heart failure or kidney disease because these conditions cause problems with regulating fluid in the body.
Dr. Florio said that paying attention to your body’s thirst signals is also an excellent way to make sure you stay adequately hydrated.
“The body is smart and does a good job regulating hydration in healthy people. You feel thirsty when you need more water and feel satisfied when you’ve had enough,” said Dr. Florio. “You don’t necessarily need to drink a specific number of glasses, but you should listen to your body.”
“In general, urinating every two-to-four hours means that your hydration levels are good. If you haven’t urinated in two-to-four hours, you may be dehydrated and should drink water,” said Dr. Ukabi.
Bottom line: Unless you have a health conditions that affects your body’s ability to regulate fluids, drinking water when you feel thirsty is usually enough to help you stay hydrated. Paying attention to your urine output and activity level can also give you clues about your hydration needs.
Although following these popular “magic” health numbers may help some people achieve their health goals, they aren’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution for everyone. The best way to achieve optimal wellness is through a personalized diet and activity plan that reflects your unique needs.