Walking 10,000 steps a day has become a ubiquitous benchmark for adequate physical activity, thanks largely to wearable fitness trackers that push users to hit that target. But according to one new study, it may be a more ambitious goal than necessary, at least for some people.
A paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine says getting only about half that many steps per day is linked to a decreased risk of early death for older women, and that benefits peter out for this group around 7,500 steps per day. It joins a growing body of research that says even small chunks of physical activity can come with sizable benefits.
“Just do a little bit. If you just do a little bit, you’re better off,” says study co-author I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t meet 10,000 steps.”
For the study, about 17,000 women ages 62 to 101 were asked to wear movement trackers that monitored step counts and speeds for at least seven consecutive days, except when sleeping or doing water-based activities. The women also reported their diets, lifestyle habits and medical histories to the researchers annually during a roughly four-year follow-up period. During that time, 504 of the women died.
After adjusting for overall health status and lifestyle habits, the study found that daily step count was strongly associated with mortality risk. Women taking roughly 4,400 steps per day had a 41% lower risk of premature death than the least-active women, who took about 2,700 steps per day, according to the study. Benefits continued accumulating more modestly from there, before plateauing at around 7,500 daily steps, the researchers found.
The number of daily steps women took seemed to matter more than their step speed, Lee says. That’s somewhat surprising, since past studies have found that walking pace is associated with longevity, but Lee says “walking pace” and “step speed” are slightly different metrics. “Walking pace” refers to the speed a person maintains while moving purposefully—think taking a brisk walk—while “step speed” measures how fast a person moves naturally while going through all of their daily tasks, from grocery shopping to puttering around the house.
Average step speed, at least, didn’t seem to matter all that much in the new study. (The researchers did not look specifically at walking pace.) “It was the number of steps you took that counted,” Lee says.
The study was observational, so it could not prove cause and effect. And since the research dealt specifically with older women, it doesn’t necessarily apply to everybody. Lee says the situation is likely similar for men of the same age, but more research is required to confirm.
In any case, 4,000 to 5,000 steps a day is pretty standard for Americans of all ages, Lee says, so it’s encouraging to know that even this amount can bring health benefits.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that it doesn’t take a Herculean feat of exercise to improve health. Recent research has found that as few as 30 minutes of movement a day—or even 10 minutes a week, according to one especially surprising study—can boost health and longevity. Even low-impact activities like walking, cleaning and gardening can make a big difference, these studies say.