New research challenges the common idea that people need to reach a threshold of 10,000 steps per day to improve their health.
Walking just 4,000 steps per day is associated with a lower risk of death, according to the analysis published Tuesday in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.
The research pooled the results of 17 studies that looked at the health benefits associated with step counts across six countries. The least active people in the studies took around 4,000 steps per day and still saw a reduced risk of death from any cause. The more steps people took, the lower their risk of dying.
Each extra 1,000 steps per day was associated with a 15% reduction in a person's overall risk of death, according to the research.
The analysis included people who took as many as 20,000 steps per day and did not find an upper limit to the health benefits of walking. Younger adults saw a greater reduction in the overall risk of death compared to older adults, the results showed.
“The main message is that we should have as many steps as possible and we should start as early as possible in order to have the highest health benefits,” said Dr. Maciej Banach, the study’s lead author and a cardiology professor at the Medical University of Lodz in Poland.
The studies that his team analyzed included almost 227,000 participants in total, most of whom were generally healthy, and followed people for an average of seven years. The participants came from Australia, Japan, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
When looking at the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease in particular, the researchers found that walking at least 2,337 steps per day lowered the risk, with each extra 500 daily steps associated with an additional 7% reduction in risk.
The study suggested that for people under age 60, walking between 7,000 and 13,000 steps per day lowered the overall risk of death by 49%. For those ages 60 and older, walking 6,000 to 10,000 daily steps lowered the risk by 42%.
The notion that 10,000 steps is the crucial daily quota is a misconception, though it is a healthy target, according to Amanda Paluch, an epidemiologist and kinesiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“It’s not an all-or-nothing situation,” she said.
The recommendation likely originated from a 1965 Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometer called “Manpo-kei,” which translates to “10,000 steps meter.”
There’s a reason it caught on, Paluch said: “It’s a nice, clean number. It is doable for a portion of the population, so it really stuck, but it has not been based on scientific evidence.”
For people who are minimally active, she added, 5,000 daily steps could be a good goal. The average person in the U.S. takes 4,774 steps per day, according to a 2017 study.
Paluch's own research, which was included in the new analysis, found that people who walked a median of around 6,000 to 11,000 daily steps had a 50% to 60% lower risk of death, relative to those with a median of around 3,500 steps.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people get 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate physical activity like riding a bike, 75 to 150 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity like jogging or running, or some combination. The guidelines also suggest doing muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
A good rule of thumb is to be active enough that your heart rate is at least slightly elevated — meaning you can talk, but you can't sing. A brisk walk or uphill hike meets that criteria, though Paluch said daily steps are usually considered light physical activity, so they wouldn’t count toward the federal guidelines.
“To really optimize your health in terms of being physically active you should incorporate both aerobic and resistance training,” she said.