The benchmark of taking 10,000 steps a day has no proven scientific basis and yet it continues to remain a daily goal for many fitness enthusiasts. Now, a new study has provided scientific evidence to show that most benefits of walking, more specifically those to improve cardiovascular health, are seen around the 8,000-step mark.
Led by researchers of the University of Granada (UGR) and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, this study is the first of its kind to provide scientific proof on the optimal number of steps one needs to take per day to significantly reduce the risk of premature death. The study was conducted in collaboration between researchers from the Netherlands (Radboud University Medical Center), Spain (Universities of Granada and Castilla-La Mancha) and the United States (Iowa State University).
Researchers were also able to show a correlation between the pace at which we walk and the subsequent health benefits, concluding that it is better to walk fast than slow. More specifically, with regard to the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, most of the benefits were observed around 7,000 steps. Given that the average length of a human stride (76 cm for men and 67 cm for women), taking 7,000 to 8,000 steps is equivalent to walking approximately 6.4km a day.
“Traditionally, many people thought that you had to reach about 10,000 steps a day to obtain health benefits, an idea that came out of Japan in the 1960s but had no basis in science,” explains the lead author of the study, Prof Francisco B Ortega from UGR's department of physical education and sports. For instance, he explains that the first pedometer marketed to the general public was the "10,000 steps meter" (a literal translation), but the figure had no scientific basis.
“We've shown for the first time that the more steps you take, the better, and that there is no excessive number of steps that has been proven to be harmful to health," explained Prof Ortega, who also points out that reaching 7,000-9,000 steps a day is a sensible health goal for most people.
For the study, researchers conducted a systematic literature review and meta-analysis or data from 12 international studies, involving more than 110,000 participants. The results were found to be in line with other recent studies which show that health benefits are obtained at less than 10,000 steps.
“What makes our study different is that, for the first time, we set clear step targets,” explains Dr Esmée Bakker, currently a Marie Curie post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Granada and one of the lead authors of the study.
“In this study, we show that measurable benefits can be obtained with small increases in the number of steps per day, and that for people with low levels of physical activity, every additional 500 steps improves their health. This is good news because not everyone can walk almost 9,000 steps a day, at least not at first, so you can set small, reachable goals and gradually make progress and increase the number of steps per day,” the published research reads.
The study also revealed that walking benefits had no difference between men and women; and that there was a direct correlation between walking speed and a reduced risk of mortality, regardless of the total number of steps each day. Additionally, according to Dr Bakker, “it doesn't matter how you count your steps, whether you wear a smartwatch, a wrist-based activity tracker or a smartphone in your pocket: the step targets are the same.”
This does not mean one should stop walking when the daily target is met. As Prof Ortega insists, “More steps are never bad. Our study showed that even as many as 16,000 steps a day does not pose a risk; on the contrary, there are additional benefits compared to walking 7,000-9,000 steps a day, but the differences in risk reduction are small. Furthermore, the step target should be age appropriate, with younger people being able to set a higher target than older people. It is also important to note that our study only looked at the effect on the risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease. There are other studies and a large body of scientific evidence that show that doing moderate and even vigorous physical activity is associated with many health benefits, including improvements in sleep quality and mental health, among many others."
“Our study gives people clear and easily measurable goals. The international physical activity recommendations advise adults to get 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. But most people don't know what exercises count as moderate intensity, making it difficult to verify their compliance with this exercise standard. Counting steps is much simpler, especially since most people have a smartphone or smartwatch these days. Herein lies the importance of our study: to provide simple and concrete targets for the number of daily steps that people can easily measure with their phones and smartwatches or wristbands, and thereby contribute to people's health,” Prof Ortega concludes.