Do You Really Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day for Better Health?

A New Study Says You Might Not Have to Walk Far to See Benefits

If you've invested in a fitness tracker, chances are you've heard that you should take 10,000 steps a day for better health. If that sounds daunting, there's good news: a study published online May 29 by JAMA Internal Medicine found that you may able to reap health benefits by taking half that number of steps each day.
Researchers found that in older women, taking as few as 4,400 steps per day was associated with a 41% lower risk of dying during the study period when compared with women who walked 2,500 steps a day or fewer. In addition, it didn't seem to matter if the women took those steps power walking or just moving around the house.
"I'm not discounting 10,000 steps a day," says the study lead author, Dr. I-Min Lee, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "For those who can get to 10,000 steps per day, that's fantastic." But the idea that older women can see health benefits with a more modest number of steps was a welcome surprise.

Meeting exercise requirements with steps: How the numbers add up
Federal guidelines currently recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking. So how does that translate to steps? Authors of the May 29 study in JAMA Internal Medicine estimate that it would take about 17,000 steps to meet that mark.
This number is from a 2005 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, which calculated steps by female participants in a six-month supervised walking program. At the start of the study, the women walked an average of 4,600 steps each day in the course of their normal activity. Women who met the 150-minute guideline took an additional 16,400 steps per week during their walks. Divided over seven days, this meant that they walked 2,300 steps per day when exercising. Combined with the 4,600 daily steps at baseline, this would add up to nearly 7,000 steps per day to meet the goal.

WHY 10,000?
You might wonder where that 10,000-steps-a-day number came from in the first place. The answer to that question isn't totally clear. "The number likely originated as a marketing tool," says Dr. Lee. "In 1965, a Japanese business, the Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company, sold a pedometer called Manpo-kei, which means 10,000 steps meter' in Japanese." The company may have chosen that number because the number 10,000, written in Japanese, looks like a person walking.
While that 10,000 number has been circulated widely, there was really no scientific evidence backing it, which is why Dr. Lee and her colleagues wanted to take a closer look. They looked at 16,741 women (average age 72) who participated in the Women's Health Study. Between 2011 and 2015, each woman wore a device for seven days to track her movement. The researchers hoped to answer two main questions:

  • How many steps a day were associated with longer life?
  • Did step intensity matter?

Researchers tracked deaths in the study group through December 2017 based on reports from family members or postal records, and then confirmed deaths using death certificates or the National Death Index. They found that death rates were highest among the most sedentary women in the study but were lower among women who reached 4,400 steps a day. Rates continued to decline in women who took steps beyond that number up to 7,500 steps a day. After that the mortality rates leveled off, says Dr. Lee.
"Taking 4,400 steps a day should be very doable for most women," says Dr. Lee. The average woman over age 60 takes about 4,000 steps a day, so reaching 4,400 isn't much of a leap. "The most inactive women in our study took about 2,700 steps a day," she says.
This means that even sedentary women can meet the goal by adding around 2,000 steps a day, which is approximately a mile.

Quick ways to squeeze in more steps during your daily activities without working out
Making some very simple changes to your daily routine can help you get in a good number of extra steps. Here are some ideas:
  • Stand up and move. Get up during commercial breaks and walk in place while watching television.
  • Make more trips. Instead of bringing laundry downstairs all at once, bring a little down at a time.
  • Don't park close to the entrance. Get in the routine of parking in a spot that is farther away from the entrance of the place you are visiting.
  • Choose active leisure activities. Walk your dog, play actively with your grandchildren, garden, or go ballroom dancing.
  • Plan ahead. Take time to strategize about where you're going in order to find ways to achieve added movement.

Ultimately, Dr. Lee says, women can take two lessons from this study:
Even small increases in your movement pay off. "Just adding a very modest number of steps a day -- say, an extra 2,000 steps -- can be very beneficial. One does not need to get to 10,000 steps a day," explains Dr. Lee.
Any type of movement counts. All steps count, so these extra 2,000 steps could be steps you take doing a whole range of activities in daily life, and not necessarily for exercise. Clean the house, run errands at the mall, or take a quick walk on the treadmill. Adding extra steps can be as simple as changing your daily habits.

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