Walking: Do You Need 10,000 Steps?
Hitting 10,000 steps a day was once considered the “gold standard” for daily physical activity. A new study, however, says that people can still reach their physical activity goals and enjoy health benefits with fewer steps.
The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in August, found that walking at least 3,867 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause. What’s more, walking 2,337 steps a day is associated with reducing the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (disease of the heart and blood vessels).
“The number of steps over which we might observe significant benefits seems to be lower than we previously thought,” Maciej Banach, one of the study’s authors and a professor of preventive cardiology at the Medical Academy of Lodz in Poland, told USA Today.
A team of scientists led by Banach analyzed more than 226,000 people from 17 different studies. The team discovered that all participants experienced similar health benefits from daily walking regardless of their age or gender. The investigators found:
- An increase of 1,000 steps a day was associated with a 15 percent reduction in the risk of dying from any cause.
- An increase of 500 steps a day was associated with a 7 percent reduction in dying from cardiovascular disease.
The team also looked at the health impact of walking as many as 20,000 steps a day and found that health benefits increased even more.
The researchers followed up participants for an average of seven years. The average age was 64, and 49 percent of participants were female. When it came to age, younger participants had more of a reduction in risk than older adults. For instance, participants under 60 who took between 7,000 and 13,000 steps a day had a 49 percent reduction in risk. Participants 60 and older who walked between 6,000 and 10,000 steps a day had a risk reduction of 42 percent.
“Our study confirms that the more you walk, the better,” Banach, who is also an adjunct professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in a press release. “We found that this applied to both men and women, irrespective of age, and irrespective of whether you live in a temperate, sub-tropical or sub-polar region of the world, or a region with a mixture of climates.”
The investigators said their study is the first one to not only assess the effect of walking up to 20,000 steps a day but also whether there were any differences depending on age, gender, or where people lived in the world.
As encouraging as the study’s results were, the investigators reported the study was limited. For example, since the study was observational, they could not prove that the “impact of increased step counts causes the reduction in the risk of death, only that it’s associated with it.” In addition, the researchers said they were not able to account for differences in race and socioeconomic status, and the methods for counting steps were not identical in all studies included in their meta-analysis.
Lack of Physical Activity Leads To Health Problems
While medication for cardiovascular disease is essential, studies show that staying physically active plays a role in lowering the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for death in the world. The WHO further reports that women (32 percent) do not get enough physical activity compared to men (23 percent). Also, people in higher-income countries (37 percent) do not get enough physical activity compared to people in low-income countries (16 percent). According to WHO, people who live a sedentary lifestyle are not meeting the global recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week.
The research team noted that COVID-19 played a role in reducing physical activity, and activity levels have not recovered for two years from it.
“In a world where we have more and more advanced drugs to target specific conditions such as cardiovascular disease, I believe we should always emphasize that lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, which was a main hero of our analysis, might be at least as, or even more effective in reducing cardiovascular risk and prolonging lives,” Banach said in a press release.
So, Where Did the 10,000 Steps Goal Come From?
Most step-counting devices have a default setting of 10,000 steps per day, which averages to about five miles. While trying to hit 10,000 or more steps a day is a worthwhile goal, it’s not achievable for many people. So, where did the number come from?
Health and wellness experts trace the origins back to a marketing campaign in Japan nearly 60 years ago. The Yamasa Corporation produced the first commercial pedometer in 1965. The company named the counting device “Manpo-Kei.” According to Yamasa, “Manpo” means “10,000 steps” in the Japanese language. The idea of walking 10,000 steps a day gradually went beyond people in Japan to walkers around the globe.
According to Banach, walking any number of steps each day can have a positive impact on one’s health. The professor said several of his patients become discouraged when they find that their hectic work schedules prevent them from walking 10,000 steps a day.
However, Banach told USA Today that he encourages his patients to try to get in 3,000 or 4,000 steps a day. For the patients who followed his recommendation, he noticed a consistent improvement in their step counts after starting at lower numbers.
Amanda Paluch, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who did a study on step-counting in 2022, told USA Today that the greatest incremental benefits are seen by “going from nothing to something.”
“If you’re starting at very low step levels, you don’t have to worry about getting to that 10,000 number,” she said.