Fitness: What’s the magic number of steps to better health?

It takes fewer steps than you might think to see benefits — and the pace of those steps might not matter.

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One of the simplest ways to track physical activity is to monitor the number of steps taken daily.

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With plenty of free step-counting apps available, not only is it easy to track your daily step count, most apps also allow you to set goals. But with national exercise guidelines setting physical activity targets in minutes (150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week) instead of steps, the question remains: What’s the magic number?

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The often-quoted 10,000 steps a day isn’t a target backed by rigorous epidemiological studies. Its origins date back to a 1960s marketing campaign for one of the original pedometers. The science behind the ideal number of daily steps required to benefit health is still in the discovery stage.

Before public health experts sign off on an official daily step goal, research needs to be more rigorous than settling on a number designed to sell pedometers. Data should be collected from diverse populations, taking into account ages, sex, race and ethnicity.

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Also important to factor into any research is whether step targets vary depending on the walker’s pace. If you speed up your walk, do you need to take as many steps as someone moving at a slower speed? Conversely, do slow walkers need to take more steps to reap the same health benefits?

The other question concerns what kind of health outcomes are associated with reaching a daily target. If you’re making all that effort to get in a healthy number of steps, you’re going to want to know the benefits. Is step volume associated with a lower risk of specific chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease or obesity? Or do the health benefits fall under the more general heading of a lower risk of all-cause mortality?

Much of the collective knowledge comes from data obtained primarily from older study subjects who generally require less exercise to affect their health. Hence, the interest in a 2021 study featuring a rare cohort of middle-age adults.

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Published in JAMA Network Open, the study gathered data from 2,110 people between 38 and 50 (average age of 45 years), with the goal being to determine the optimal number and speed of steps associated with better health. Daily step counts were collected over the course of a year with the health of the group followed for the next 10.8 years.

Health markers were compared with their daily step counts to see if there were differences in the risk profiles between those with the lowest (fewer than 7,000 steps), moderate (7,000-10,000 steps) or highest (greater than 10,000 steps) number of steps.

Also factored was the effect of step intensity on overall health, which was defined by the highest number of steps over any 30 minutes during the day, with moderate intensity defined as 100 steps per minute. It turns out it takes fewer steps than you might think to benefit health and the pace of those steps doesn’t seem to matter.

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“Adults taking at least 7,000 steps per day, compared with those taking fewer than 7,000 steps per day, had approximately 50 to 70 per cent lower risk of mortality,” the researchers said.

The results didn’t vary among men and women and Black and caucasian study subjects. The group with the lowest step count had a significantly greater proportion of women and Black participants. This same group also had a higher body mass index, and more hypertension and diabetes than in the moderate and high step groups.

The majority of the study subjects (41 per cent) logged between 7,000 and 9,999 steps daily, which puts them in the moderate range and the beneficiaries of the 50- to 70-per-cent improvement in longevity. And contrary to the adage that more is better, the group who exceeded 10,000 steps a day didn’t reap any additional reduction in mortality risk.

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As for whether increasing walking intensity offered any added health benefits, even though pace seemed to have little effect, the researchers said the fast walkers in their study took the most steps, which makes it hard to determine the independent effect of step intensity and volume on longevity.

These results mirror those of similar studies that suggest we’re getting closer to declaring 7,000 steps a day as the ideal target. But that’s not the most compelling discovery regarding step counts.

Several studies have reported the biggest reductions in mortality risk occur among those who went from low to moderate daily step counts. If the least active among us (3,000 to 4,000 steps per day) can double their step count, their health will benefit.

If that describes you, or someone you care about, consider downloading one of the many available step counting apps onto your phone and set the goal to 7,000 steps a day. Then start walking.

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