By now, most people have heard that walking 10,000 steps a day is advised in order to live a healthy life. You’ll find hundreds of articles online flashing this advice. But this conveniently neat number was never backed by science, being instead part of an old Japanese ad campaign. Some researchers have, however, investigated how daily walking impacts our health and have some good news. Walking really does improve health and dramatically reduces the risk of death. And luckily you don’t need 10,000 steps to reap these benefits.
The 10k steps myth
The “10,000 steps” magic number can be traced back to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, during which a number of public relations and marketing campaigns were heavily promoted by a number of local and international companies that tried to capitalize on the surrounding fitness craze. One such campaign involved the marketing of a pedometer called the manpo-kei, which literally means “10,000 steps meter” in Japanese. Since then, this catchy figure has been regurgitated time and time again as an antidote to the health risks of living a sedentary lifestyle, especially as we grow older.
Walking a lot is certainly good for our health — that is not up for debate. Walking helps burn calories so you can maintain a healthy weight and stave off obesity, strengthens the heart, eases joint pain, boosts immune function, tones the leg muscles, and improves our thinking and higher-order cognitive functions, including creativity.
What we’re debating is the actual optimal amount of steps an average person needs to take — and now we may finally have an answer. Amanda Paluch, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts’ department of kinesiology, published a study earlier this month that involved over 2,000 middle-aged adults who had to wear a step-counting fitness device between 2005 and 2016. At the end of the study period, the researchers looked at how the participants’ walking habits impacted their risk of death.
As expected, those who clocked in 5,000 steps had a lower risk of death than those who walked, say, only 3,000 or 4,000 steps. However, the optimal amount of steps was found to be 7,000, and anything more was not associated with any additional benefits, with returns tapering off exponentially past this sweet spot. At 7,000 daily steps, the risk of death was between 50% and 70% lower from all causes compared to people who barely walked.
“This cohort study found that among Black and White men and women in middle adulthood, participants who took approximately 7000 steps/day or more experienced lower mortality rates compared with participants taking fewer than 7000 steps/day,” the authors reported in the journal JAMA Network.
The study found no association between the intensity of walking and the risk of death among the participants, which suggests even walking at your own pace, no matter how slow, can have a positive impact on your health. However, a separate study found brisk walking — moving at a maximum speed of 4.5 mph (7 kmph) — maximizes the health benefits of walking.
All of that is to say that there’s no magic number when it comes to the number of steps one should take on a daily basis. The optimal 7,000 steps per day identified by the study is equivalent to walking for around 100 minutes, and that’s a great goal to have in mind. But even fitting a 20-minute walk into your schedule can do wonders — and you don’t even need a fancy pedometer or app. You just need to walk for as long as you feel comfortable to turn this into a daily habit.
This article originally appeared in February 2021.