Good News: Walking Your Way To Wellness Is Easier Than You Thought

A new huge meta-analysis shows us just how many steps we need to take to start seeing improvements to our health.

Dr. Russell Moul

Say goodbye to the arbitrary “10,000 steps a day” target, as a huge new study shows that your health starts to see benefits from walking fewer steps than previously thought. However, before you throw out your hiking boots, the same study shows that the more you walk, the greater the benefits. In fact, there’s no upper limit. 

As more of us settle into sedentary lifestyles associated with desk-based work, there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and an overall shorter lifespan. Research has shown that insufficient physical activity impacts over a quarter of the world’s population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), inactivity and insufficient amounts of exercise is the fourth most frequent cause of death in the world, with 3.2 million deaths a year related to it. This situation was made worse by the COVID pandemic, which forced more people to forgo their usual level of exercise, and overall, our activity levels have not yet recovered. 

In the face of this crisis, many people looking to improve their health turn to walking as the first option – it’s a great way to get into fitness and has multiple proven benefits. But how much walking do you need to see the benefits?

The idea that we should walk a minimum of 10,000 steps a day in order to stay healthy has been a catechism for many people for decades. However, this number is pretty arbitrary and has its roots in the manufacturing of the first pedometers in the 1960s. Since then, various studies have shown that you do not need to aim for such a high number to improve your fitness. But the new research conducted by an international team has added greater detail to this work, in what is the biggest metanalysis of its kind. 

The researchers analyzed 226,889 people from 17 different studies from across the world and found that walking at least 3,967 steps a day was enough to reduce the risk of dying from any cause, and that walking 2,337 steps a day lowered the chances of dying from cardiovascular disease

This is significant news, but the researchers also found that the more you walk the better you will be. Even if you manage 20,000 steps a day, the health benefits continue to increase – they have not yet found an upper limit. 

“Our study confirms that the more you walk, the better,” Maciej Banach, Professor of Cardiology at the Medical University of Lodz, Poland, said in a statement. “We found that this applied to both men and women, irrespective of age, and irrespective of whether you live in a temperate, sub-tropical or sub-polar region of the world, or a region with a mixture of climates. In addition, our analysis indicates that as little as 4,000 steps a day are needed to significantly reduce deaths from any cause, and even fewer to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

Dr Ibadete Bytyçi from the University Clinical Centre of Kosovo in Pristina, senior author of the paper, added: “Until now, it’s not been clear what is the optimal number of steps, both in terms of the cut-off points over which we can start to see health benefits, and the upper limit, if any, and the role this plays in people’s health. However, I should emphasise that there were limited data available on step counts up to 20,000 a day, and so these results need to be confirmed in larger groups of people.”

This study is important in several ways. Not only does it assess a large population size, it is also the first to examine the effects of walking up to 20,000 steps a day. In addition, it is the first analyze whether walking has different benefits depending on an individual’s sex, age, or geographic location. 

The studies that made up this metanalysis followed up participants for an average of seven years, while the mean (average) age of those involved was 64, and 49 percent of the participants were female.

The results showed that, for people aged 60 or above, the size of the reduction in risk of death was smaller than for those below 60 years of age. Younger adults seem to experience the highest benefits, with a 49 percent reduction in the risk of death for those who walked between 7,000 and 13,000 steps a day. In older adults, those who walked between 6,000 and 10,000 steps experienced a 42 percent reduction.

Professor Banach added: “In a world where we have more and more advanced drugs to target specific conditions such as cardiovascular disease, I believe we should always emphasise that lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, which was a main hero of our analysis, might be at least as, or even more effective in reducing cardiovascular risk and prolonging lives.”

“We still need good studies to investigate whether these benefits may exist for intensive types of exertion, such as marathon running and iron man challenges, and in different populations of different ages, and with different associated health problems. However, it seems that, as with pharmacological treatments, we should always think about personalising lifestyle changes.”

The study is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

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