April 21, 2023 – Brian Smith has always been an active guy. The 32-year-old editor from Santa Fe, NM , enjoys hiking, mountain biking, skiing – anything outdoors, and you can probably count him in. But when his daughter was born about 6 months ago, time for all those activities shrank, and Smith found himself left with the easiest, most convenient type of exercise available to him: walking.
What Smith has found interesting is that he feels almost as fit and healthy as a walker as he does with his other activities. And because he wears a smartwatch, he’s aware of his step count, which is typically around 8,500 per day. Turns out, that number is probably spot-on for decreasing the rates of death from all causes.
This flies in the face of what the world – and even the CDC – has long considered the “magic number” for daily steps: 10,000. Fitness trackers have embraced that number, and users have worked hard to strive for it. As it turns out, that 10,000-step goal is rather arbitrary and actually dates back to one of the first pedometers ever made, which hails from Japan. Translated, that pedometer’s name was “10,000 Steps.” A recent study suggests the actual goal might be lower – ideally somewhere in the 8,000-step range, done a few times per week. Smith may be onto something.
The study, which appeared in JAMA Network Open, collected data from over 3,100 people for a week’s worth of activity in 2005 and 2006, then followed their mortality data in 2019. The results reject the idea that 10,000 daily steps are necessary to lower deaths caused by trouble with your heart and blood vessels and deaths from other causes. Instead, the authors found that people in the study who walked at least 8,000 steps 1 to 2 days per week were less likely to die within 10 years. After that marker, the benefits largely hit a plateau.
“Regular walking of any distance has multiple health benefits,” said Karla Robinson, MD, medical editor at GoodRx. A report in JAMA Internal Medicine found that walking a minimum of 4,400 steps a day for older adults had significant health benefits when compared to those who walked fewer than 4,400 steps per day. Health benefits increase with the number of steps you take up until you hit about 7,500 steps per day, she said.
What to Do With the Data
All this data can be confusing, especially if you’re someone who has been aiming for the 10,000-step goal. There’s no need to back off that number if it’s something you enjoy and can fit in. But the takeaway from the latest research is good news for those who might find the bigger step counts challenging.
“Any amount of walking is beneficial, and if you are averaging 10,000 steps or more a day, don’t feel the need to reduce that number,” Robinson said. “If you are looking for a step goal to maximize health benefits, anything around 8,000 steps is a great benchmark.”
Renee Deehan, PhD, vice president of science and artificial intelligence at InsideTracker, a personalized wellness platform, agrees with that advice. The company recently did its own analysis of 22 published papers evaluating the impact of step count on mortality and/or metabolic syndrome/type 2 diabetes. They found that most studies reported a dose-dependent effect with respect to lowering deaths from all causes.
“That is, the more steps per day you take are associated with an increasingly lower risk,” Deehan said. “Most of the studies indicated a plateau, however, where reductions stabilized.”
From InsideTracker’s perspective, then, “Optimally, you could continue to shoot for 10,000 steps a day, but if you can get to 7,000, that’s a great goal,” she said. “The key piece is making movement a habit and a regular part of the day.”
This might look like sneaking in steps throughout the day – for some people, finding a dedicated 30 to 60 minutes for exercise each day can be difficult. “Take the stairs, or log off a meeting 5 minutes early a few times a day to jaunt around the kitchen or the block,” Deehan suggested. “That adds up over the weeks, months, and years.”
If you’re wondering how vigorous your walking needs to be, Robinson said that a pace of about 3 to 4 miles per hour will drive the greatest health benefits, but even a leisurely stroll will do the trick. “Walking won’t get your heart rate up particularly high,” she said. “However, it is a great low-impact way to burn calories and can also help lower your blood pressure, improve your blood sugars, and promote heart health.”
Walking “prescriptions” will vary, too, by age and overall health. The JAMA Network Open analysis, for instance, found that for people over the age of 60, the health benefits hit a plateau at 6,000 steps per day, compared to the approximately 8,000 steps for their younger counterparts.
Robinson has aimed to specialize her recommendations for her patients. “For some people, even aiming for 4,400 steps a day is a lofty goal,” she said. “As a provider, it’s important to meet people where they are and customize their fitness plan according to their individual health history and needs.”
At the end of the day, it’s consistency that counts, whatever that looks like to you at a given stage of life. While Smith has certainly missed all the time he used to have for outdoor recreation, he feels confident it will return quickly, thanks to his walking routine. . “I’ve been surprised that my baseline fitness is so good with simply walking,” he said. “In the past, when I’ve had less active periods in my life, transitioning back to my normal activity level was a little tough. I don’t feel like that will be the case after consistent walking.”