The study also showed that those who manage to walk more throughout the day are less likely to actually develop the blood sugar disorder.
Earlier studies have shown that walking more is tied to a lower risk of diabetes, but few studies have looked into precise measures of how many steps people take each day, said Amanda Fretts, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“Our finding wasn’t surprising given that other studies have shown that even light activity is associated with a lower risk of diabetes,”Fretts wrote in an email to Reuters Health.
To get a better sense of the potential benefits of walking, Fretts and her colleagues asked more than 1,800 people to wear a pedometer for a week to tally the number of steps they typically took each day.
All of them came from native American communities in Arizona, Oklahoma and North and South Dakota that are known to have low physical activity levels and high rates of diabetes.
About a quarter of the group were considered to have very low activity, taking fewer than 3,500 steps a day, while half took fewer than 7,800 steps a day.
One mile is around 2,000 steps and daily walking recommendations typically point to a minimum of 10,000 steps a day.
At the beginning of the study, none of the participants had diabetes.
But after five years of follow-up, 243 people had the condition.
About 17 per cent of the people in the lowest activity group developed diabetes, compared to 12 per cent of the people who took more than 3,500 steps a day.
After taking into account people’s age, whether they smoked and other diabetes risk factors, Fretts’s team determined that people who walked the most were 29 per cent less likely to develop diabetes than those who walked the least.
The findings don’t prove that walking more is responsible for the lower diabetes risk, but Fretts offered some possible explanations for how walking might help.
“Increased physical activity may prevent weight gain and promote weight loss, a major determinant of diabetes risk,”she said.
Physical activity also has effects on inflammation, glucose and other molecules in the body that could help lower diabetes risk.
But she added that the potential benefits of moderate levels of walking are “only for those who are really inactive to begin with.”