Setting a daily step goal is one of the easiest ways to ensure you’re active enough to benefit your health. All you need is a step counter, such as an app on your smartphone or smartwatch, a pair of comfortable shoes and a commitment to put one foot in front of the other. But just how many steps does it take to improve health and fitness?
Ten thousand is often the first number that comes to mind when setting a daily target for steps. This easy-to-remember metric has been touted as the ultimate goal for anyone taking steps toward improving their health. But in the last few years, daily goals as high as 15,000 and as low as 7,000 have been proposed by experts.
A recent article in the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Network is the latest publication to jump into the debate, not only taking on the popular target of 10,000 steps but also considering whether speed is part of the equation. In other words, when it comes to health, which leads to better outcomes: step volume or step pace?
The study, led by Amanda Paluch from the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, evaluated data gathered over an 11-year period from 2,110 middle-aged Black and white men and women who checked in every two years for a series of tests and assessments related to their health and lifestyle. The objective was to determine a daily step target that would lead to a reduced risk of premature death among this diverse group of middle-aged Americans.
The research team divided the study subjects into three step count categories — low (under 7,000), moderate (7,000 to 10,000) and high (over 10,000) — and noted the walking intensity of each group by the number of minutes spent walking at a pace of 100-plus steps. The data was then analyzed against mortality rates and medical information of all 2,110 subjects over the course of the study to determine the impact of daily step counts on longevity and overall health.
Not surprisingly, the lowest step group had the highest rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and premature death. What is surprising is that the data suggests 10,000 steps may be an overly ambitious goal for anyone looking to reduce their risk of chronic disease and premature death.
“Adults taking at least 7,000 steps per day, compared with those taking fewer than 7,000 steps a day, had approximately 50 per cent to 70 per cent lower risk of mortality,” said the researchers.
As for those who put in the extra effort and logged 10,000 or more steps a day, no further reduction in mortality risk was realized. And, like adding extra steps, adding extra speed offered no additional boost in longevity. In other words, if a lower risk of mortality is the goal, a daily target of 7,000 to 10,000 steps is ideal, with no pressure to pick up the pace or fit more steps into your day.
The results of the JAMA Network study are similar to those reported by a small handful of other research teams that also questioned the science behind the target of 10,000 steps a day. But the University of Massachusetts team points to the diversity and age of its study’s participants, which differ from the older and primarily Caucasian individuals included in previous studies.
That’s not the only information worth noting from this growing bank of data. Significant gains in longevity can be achieved when the least active walk more, even if they never reach the 7,000- to 10,000-step range. Going from a meagre 2,000 steps a day to a modest 4,000 can result in a 30 per cent decrease in mortality risk.
Understanding the benefits of setting and achieving step goals has significant implications, especially for those struggling to lead a more active lifestyle. Add that knowledge to the proliferation of easy-to-use step counting devices and apps that translate daily activity into steps, and it’s easier than ever to make and track step goals.
It’s also good to know that if you’re sedentary, any significant increase in daily steps is likely to benefit your health. And it’s good news that walking pace doesn’t seem to move the needle in terms of further reductions in mortality, which means there’s no immediate need to increase pace while you’re increasing your daily step count.
When it comes to physical activity, the general rule is that more exercise garners more impressive results. But as the saying goes, one step at a time. Walking is simple, accessible, inexpensive and offers a wide range of health and wellness benefits, making it the perfect gateway to a more active lifestyle.