Even if you’re not one of them, you likely know a handful of people who track their daily number of steps through some kind of fitness tracker. Now, new research substantiates the belief that reaching this daily goal has real health benefits. But exactly how many steps should you be taking? According to a recent study, taking at least 7,000 steps a day reduces the risk of premature death among middle-aged people.
Findings from the new study, led by University of Massachusetts researchers and published in JAMA Network Open, showed that walking 7,000 steps daily reduced the risk of premature death by 50 to 70 percent compared with middle-aged individuals who took less the number of daily steps.
Interestingly, walking more than 10,000 steps or walking faster did not reduce the risk any further.
The findings are important as they reflect efforts to establish evidence-based guidelines for simple, everyday physical activities like walking that benefit health and longevity.
In fact, the “10,000 steps-a-day” measure that is often thrown around is not based on any scientific-based guidelines. It was actually the result of a decades-old marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer, explained Dr. Amanda Paluch, assistant professor of kinesiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and lead author on the study.
Given the arbitrary 10,000 steps recommendation, Paluch and her colleagues wanted to find out how many steps a day actually translate to a beneficial impact on health. “That would be great to know for a public health message or for clinician-patient communication,” Paluch said.
The researchers used data from the ongoing Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which began in 1985. They analyzed data from 2,100 participants between the ages of 38 and 50 who wore an accelerometer in 2005 or 2006 and were followed for almost 11 years (until 2020 and 2021). The study included an equal number of men and women and almost equal numbers of Black (42.1 percent) and white participants.
The study participants were separated into three comparison groups based on per day step volume: low (less than 7,000 steps), moderate (7,000 to 9,999 steps) and high (10,000 steps or more). Stepping intensity (classified as peak 30-minute stepping rate) and duration of 100 steps/min or more were also evaluated.
Results of the analysis showed that people who took 7,000 steps a day (the moderate level) cut their risk of premature death. The greatest benefit was seen between 7,000 to 10,000 steps, and no additional benefit was seen going beyond 10,000, Paluch said.
Importantly, at lower step counts, increasing the number of steps led to meaningful benefit. “For people at 4,000 steps, getting to 5,000 is meaningful,” Paluch said. “And from 5,000 to 6,000 steps, there is an incremental risk reduction in all-cause mortality up to about 10,000 steps.”
The study also found that mortality rates for people who walked at least 7,000 steps per day were lowest among women and Black people compared to their less-active counterparts. However, the number of deaths was small in the sample overall. In addition, Paluch cautions that investigators need to study larger diverse populations to ascertain statistically significant differences based on sex and race. Nevertheless, the inclusion of a large non-white cohort makes this study important.
Another unique and important feature of the study is that it involved middle-aged people, which is not common, as most step studies have focused on older adults. Therefore, the findings can be used to help determine strategies to maintain good health earlier and longer to avoid premature death.
“Preventing those deaths before average life expectancy — that is a big deal,” Paluch said. “Showing that steps per day could be associated with premature mortality is a new contribution to the field.”
As health wearables and fitness trackers continue to grow in popularity, the study has significant implications as it can help people set more accurate activity targets based on scientific, evidence-based research. The researchers of the study cite the fact that Fitbit activity tracker users increased from approximately 500,000 people in 2012 to 29.5 million people in 2019. Given this, they say it’s “important to provide evidence-based recommendations for the number and intensity of steps associated with mortality and other health benefits.”
Walking is generally a simple and desirable form of physical activity for most people. Showing that it has scientifically-backed health benefits could help encourage people to take those steps towards good health and longevity. And now, we may be getting a better idea of exactly how many steps a day would help achieve it.