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An extra 4300 steps could cut the time older Australians spend in hospital, study shows

An extra 40-minute stroll every day can mean fewer days in hospital for older Australians, new research shows. 

For people over 55 years old, increasing the number of daily steps from 4500 to 8800 is linked to one less day in hospital every three years, researchers at the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Newcastle have found. 

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The extra 4300 steps – about three kilometres – is linked to a statistically significant drop in hospital-bed days, suggests the study published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday

Fewer than half of Australian adults meet physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity a week, according to ABS data.

International experts argue convincing a sedentary population to be more active is one of the biggest issues facing public health. 

More than 2100 participants aged over 55 wore pedometers for one week at some point between 2005 and 2007. Their hospital records were analysed for eight years on average from March 2015. 

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For every increase of 1000 daily steps, the estimated overall number of hospital bed-days a year dropped by 9 per cent, reported the researchers led by Dr Ben Ewald. 

The difference between taking 4500 and 8800 steps every day was 0.36 hospital bed-days a person a year, or about one day every three years of life, the study showed. 

"These steps can be accumulated as many brief activities throughout the day, or as steady walking for about three kilometres," the authors wrote. 

"The cost of a day in hospital in Australia in 2012-13 was $1895, so $550 can potentially be saved annually for each person who increases their physical activity by an achievable 4300 steps per day," they said. 

The authors also found statistically significant reductions in cancer and diabetes admission rates were associated with increasing daily step count, but surprisingly not so for cardiovascular disease.  

Earlier studies had shown the least active people had the most to gain from taking a couple of thousand extra steps a day.

"Moving from 3000 to 5000 steps per day is of greater benefit than moving from 8000 to 10,000 steps," Dr Ewald and his colleagues wrote. 

"Health interventions and urban design features that encourage walking could have a substantial effect on the need for hospital care, and should be features of health policy," they concluded. 

Public health experts argue one of the biggest challenges they face is how to convince a largely sedentary population to be more active.

Wearable activity monitors such as Fitbit, Garmin and Apple watch could potentially enhance the likelihood that people would maintain any increases in their physical activity in the long term, Professor Jo Salmon and Dr Nicky Ridgers at Deakin University's Physical Activity and Nutrition wrote in an accompanying editorial. 

"We need to identify how these devices can be integrated into clinical practice in order to improve health outcomes," wrote the authors, who declared no conflicts of interest. 

The monitors "would be a good first step" for patients with sedentary lifestyles wanting to become more active, they advised health care practitioners.