Many people — including a few health organizations — have bought into the idea that we need to walk 10,000 steps a day to be at our healthiest.
But, although it’s true that regular physical activity is essential for good health, that 10,000 figure is completely arbitrary. It originated not from a scientific study, but from a 1960s Japanese advertising promotion for the world’s first wearable step counter.
Given that too many people engage in too little exercise these days, recommending 10,000 steps a day without supporting evidence may seem innocuous. The problem is, however, that for many people, that figure appears so unreachable that they just give up on the idea of increasing their physical activity.
So, what is a reasonable daily goal? How many steps are associated with better health and a longer life?
A new study, published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggests that the number may be much lower than 10,000 — at least for older women (and perhaps for older men, too).
Specifically, the study found that an average of only 4,440 steps per day was “significantly associated with lower mortality rates.”
“Taking 10,000 steps a day can sound daunting, but we find that even a modest increase in steps taken is tied to significantly lower mortality in older women,” said I-Min Lee, the study’s lead author and an epidemiologist at Harvard University, in a released statement.
“Our study adds to a growing understanding of the importance of physical activity for health, clarifies the number of steps related to lower mortality and amplifies the message: Step more — even a little more is helpful,” she added.
The study involved 16,741 older American women, aged 62 to 101. (Their mean age was 72.) None of the women had heart disease, cancer or diabetes when they were enrolled, and all self-rated their health as either “good” or “excellent.”
At the start of the study, the women wore an accelerometer on their hips for seven consecutive days. The device tracked the number of steps they took, as well as the speed at which they took those steps.
Based on those accelerometer readings, the researchers placed the women into four groups. Those in the lowest quartile averaged less than 2,718 steps per day, while those in the highest quartile averaged 8,442 or more steps per day.
The women were then followed for four years. During that time, 504 of them died.
The study found that older women who took an average of 4,400 steps per day were 41 percent less likely to die within the next four years than those who took only 2,700 steps per day.
Furthermore, although the risk of death continued to decrease as the daily steps increased, it plateaued at around 7,500 steps — much lower than the 10,000 steps hardwired into many health recommendations.
The study also found that it didn’t matter whether the women walked fast or slow. “Number of steps, rather than stepping intensity, was the step metric consistently related to lower mortality rates,” Lee and her colleagues emphasize in their paper.
Limitations and implications
This study was observational, so it can’t prove a direct link between steps taken and lower risk of early death. Although the researchers controlled for many health-related factors, the women who walked more may have been in better health to start with. Indeed, the women in the study were, overall, more active than most women their age in the United States.
Also, the participants’ steps were recorded for only one week. That week may have not been representative of their walking habits. (The researchers did, however, repeat the step assessment over two to three years for a subgroup of the women and found that their walking habits stayed essentially the same.)
Furthermore, the study involved only older women, although Lee told CCN reporter Susan Scutti that she believed the results probably also applied to older men because “we know the relation between physical activity and different health outcomes appear similar between men and women.”
Whether or not the findings apply to younger people is less clear. “For a younger age group, it might take more steps,” Lee said.
The most important take-home message from this study, however, is not about specific number. It’s about being physically active.
As Lee told Scutti: “If you do nothing, do something. Get your steps up to 4,500 and you will start seeing benefits. For people who are willing to do more, by all means.”
“And if it makes you feel good to do 10,000 steps versus 7,500, I say, ‘Go for it!’”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the JAMA Internal Medicine website.