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Do you really need to walk 10,000 steps to see health benefits?

Painted footprints on a sidewalk.
Walking every day has several health benefits. HIGHLANDER/Stocksy
  • A new meta-study of 12 other studies brings clarity to confusion regarding the most beneficial number of steps one should walk each day.
  • The study indicates that benefits begin with as few as around 2,500 daily steps and rise from there.
  • For the optimal reduction in all-cause mortality and cardiovascular risk, however, a person should walk around 9,000 and 7,000 steps daily, respectively.

Over the last several years, studies have been trying to answer the question: “How many steps a day should I walk to derive a health benefit?” A new meta-study analyzes the results of 12 such investigations, and its conclusions may provide the most definitive answer yet.

The study finds that health benefits begin at between 2,500 and 2,700 steps a day. For the strongest defense against cardiovascular disease, around 7,000 daily steps is the magic number (precisely 7,126), and the greatest reduction in the risk of mortality occurs with about 9,000 steps each day (8,763 steps).

For people walking 2,500 steps, the risk of all-cause death was reduced by 8%, while cardiovascular events were reduced by 11% with 2,700 steps. At 9,000 steps a day, the chance of dying early is reduced by 60%. Walking 7,000 steps lowers one’s chances of cardiovascular disease by 51%.

The much-cited goal of walking 10,000 steps per day has been largely debunked. It originated in an advertisement for a pedometer in 1964 and was not backed by any scientific research.

The authors of the study also found that additional health benefits are associated with intermediate and high walking speeds in addition to the benefits associated with step counts.

The 12 studies included in the meta-study encompassed health records for 111,309 individuals who wore accelerometers, or fitness trackers.

The study was published in the Journal of American Cardiology.

Health benefits at fewer than 10,000 steps

“This is the first study to objectively quantify the minimal and optimal stepping volume for health outcomes,” said senior investigator Dr. Thijs M.H. Eijsvogels.

“We also found that these step targets were independent of sex, device type, or wearable location, reinforcing the robustness of our findings and the possibility to add these step targets to future physical activity guidelines,” said Dr. Eijsvogels.

Dr. Amanda Paluch, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts, and member of the Steps for Health Collaborative, who was not involved in the current meta-study, said, “This study reiterates what we have seen in our previous work. Move more and sit less. It is not an all-or-nothing situation.”

Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at Saddleback Medical Center, who was also not involved in the study, was pleased that the study “gives us lots of [step] targets.

Dr. Paluch suggested that no matter one’s number of daily steps, it is a good idea to set incremental goals that increase step counts over time.

If one is taking 10,000 steps per day, that is no problem. “These results are not an indication that taking more than 10,000 steps may be harmful. There just appears to be diminishing returns at these higher levels,” noted Dr. Paluch.

Dr. Jayne Morgan, cardiologist and clinical director of the Covid Task Force at the Piedmont Healthcare Corporation in Atlanta, GA, was also not involved in the study, explained, “In fact, a decrease in mortality continues to be seen at up to 8,763 steps, and a reduced cardiovascular risk/incidence is realized up to 7,126 steps.”

“This is almost a full 1.5 miles less than the often-touted 10,000-step recommendation,” said Dr. Morgan.

Does walking pace matter?

“In observational studies like this one,” said Dr. Paluch, “it is difficult to tease out the association since walking volume and pace are close related — those who step faster tend to also have more daily steps.”

“Additionally, fewer studies have data available on stepping pace and health benefits, which limits our ability to make strong conclusions as to whether one needs to walk faster or simply get in their steps at any pace.”

Dr. Chen proposed the best guidance is “Try to walk at a pace where you can feel your heart rate going up a little bit. I do say that a higher pace is more helpful than a slower pace.”

“This is huge, as walking is accessible to most, and although faster paces were associated with the highest reduction in heart disease, lower cadences (slower pace of walking) also showed a decrease in heart disease risk.”
— Dr. Jayne Morgan

Should older people walk the same number of steps?

Dr. Morgan said the study’s “Big takeaway is for our aging population.”

“How does this population remain healthy?” asked Dr. Morgan. “Walking, literally any amount daily, helps toward the goal of living a healthy lifestyle and reducing cardiovascular risk.”

“It tells us that we don’t need to target 10,000 to get most of the benefit because sometimes it can be discouraging for people saying, ‘oh boy, that sounds like a really high number,’” said Dr. Chen.

Dr. Morgan pointed out that approximately 500 steps is a 1.25-mile walk, a far more achievable goal for older people than a five-mile, 10,000-step journey.

Dr. Chen agreed that the study’s finding that even lower step counts can promote health are welcome news for his older patients.

Dr. Chen said he worries about the frailty that accompanies old age for many.

“I’m not trying to get them from 5,000 to 10,000. I’m just trying to get them from 0 to 2,000 to 3,000,” he said.

He suggests that if they are not doing any significant amount of walking that they “target maybe 10 minutes a day, and just turn it into a habit.’”

“We found that every step counts. Small increases in daily steps can yield substantial health benefits, so adding 1,000 steps to your daily routine (~10 mins of walking) is worthwhile to consider for everyone,” Dr. Eijsvogels concluded.

This article originally appeared on Medical News Today.

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