- New research based on fitness tracker data adds specificity to our current understanding of how many steps a person should walk each day to protect their health.
- The study suggests that a goal of 8,200 steps a day significantly lowers a person’s risk of chronic disease.
- Increasing step count and walking intensity is beneficial for avoiding most of the chronic diseases that were studied.
You’ve most likely heard that walking is good for your health — but there’s often a lack of consensus about how much walking you need per day to produce health benefits.
For instance, the popular 10,000 steps-a-day goal originated from product marketing during the 1960s and was not the product of medical investigation.
But a new study from researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN, takes a fresh look at how many steps a person should take each day — and what kind of steps are most beneficial — to promote good health.
Using data from fitness trackers, researchers found that walking 8,200 steps a day was the threshold at which a person begins to significantly lower their risk of developing a variety of chronic diseases.
The results show an association between walking 8,200 steps and a reduced risk of chronic conditions, including:
- sleep apnea
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- major depressive disorder (MDD)
The study also found that walking even more steps continues to increase walking’s benefits for nearly every health condition studied.
The study’s senior investigator, Dr. Evan L. Brittain, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt, told Medical News Today:
“For most conditions, higher was better. However, for diabetes and hypertension, we observed a plateau at around 8–9000 steps per day, above which there wasn’t any obvious benefit. That’s not to say people at risk of hypertension and diabetes should stop walking when they reach those levels because there are benefits of activity beyond just those two conditions. CVD [cardiovascular disease] didn’t emerge in our analysis, probably because there weren’t enough incident CVD diagnoses to reach statistical significance in our rigorous analyses and in this relatively healthy cohort.”
Physical activity epidemiologist and kinesiologist Amanda Paluch, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, not involved in the study, explained to MNT:
“Physical activity such as walking works on multiple mechanisms, affecting nearly every cell in the body to benefit our health.”
“Benefits [include] promoting stronger bones and muscles, weight management, reducing chronic inflammation, lower stress levels, and improving the strength and efficiency of our heart and blood vessels. These benefits of walking result in a lower risk of chronic disease, like cardiovascular disease and cancer, and enable us to live healthier for longer.”
A fitness tracker-based study
The researchers analyzed an average of 4 years worth of data from 6,042 participants included in the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us study.
Individuals tracked their exercise wearing Fitbit wristbands and provided researchers access to their electronic health records. Participants walked an average of 7,731 steps per day.
The data spanned 5,991,662 person-days of monitoring and nearly 50.6 billion total steps.
The cohort was almost 73% female, 84% white, and 71% had a college degree. Their ages ranged from 41.5–67.6, with a median age of 56.7. Individuals ranged in BMI from a healthy weight to obese, with a median BMI of 28.1.
The authors of the study did note that a lack of diversity is a limitation of the study.
“This was a ‘bring your own device’ study, meaning that participants in this study who owned a Fitbit device were invited to share their data,” Dr. Paluch said.
“Therefore, this study only includes participants who had previously bought a Fitbit and wore the device regularly with at least six months of data. The sample in this study is primarily white women with college degrees, which is the demographic likely to purchase and wear a Fitbit regularly.”
Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, also not involved in the study, told MNT:
“There is also the possibility of a bias in the study as they enroll healthy people, motivated to improve their health by purchasing electronic health tracking devices, who exercise more, and therefore have better health outcomes. The study gives insight into this specific population, but is somewhat limited in reaching conclusions about those groups (male, sedentary, ethnic minorities, uneducated, etc.) not included in the study.”
Be that as it may, Dr. Brittain noted:
“We were able to find strong associations with several chronic diseases. It’s easy to imagine, then, that the relative benefit of increasing activity is likely to be higher in more sedentary patients who have a higher baseline risk of those diseases.”
“For example, going from 4,000 to 8,000 steps [per] day is probably more beneficial than going from 8,000 to 12,000,” he added.
Intensity of your step count matters
Step intensity is typically measured by the number of steps one takes per minute. Moderate intensity is about 100 steps per minute, and vigorous intensity is 130.
Both were seen as additionally beneficial in the study.
“Participants that did more vigorous walking, such as with an incline or at a faster speed, showed greater health improvements such as lower BMI,” Dr. Cutler said.
“The more often you get your heart pumping at a brisk pace, the better.”
Why walking is good for you
Dr. Cutler said that walking improves cardiovascular health and decreases sedentary habits.
“Another benefit of walking is improved bone health,” he added. “When we walk, ideally at a brisk pace and with some added weights, we are breaking down old bone, which in turn activates the formation of new bone cell turnover. This is ultimately very beneficial at decreasing the risk of osteoporosis, which most commonly affects postmenopausal women.”
Dr. Paluch noted that walking is a great activity that’s accessible to many people.
“You don’t need additional equipment, and you can fit it into your daily lives on a busy day versus finding the hour to make it to the gym,” Dr. Paluch said.
“The current public health guidelines recommend 2 days per week of strength training in addition to 150 to 300 minutes per week of aerobic activity like walking. Strength training can be as simple as 20 minutes of body weight exercises such as push-ups, lunges, and planks.”
– Amanda Paluch, Ph.D., physical activity epidemiologist and kinesiologist
How to get started with walking
If you’re interested in increasing your daily step count to 8,200 steps a day, Dr. Paluch recommends starting with proper footwear and setting small, achievable goals.
“Start by increasing your number of steps by 500–1,000 steps per day and work your way up from there, increasing your goal every 1–2 weeks,” she said.
“Additionally, start with lower intensity walking and as you become more comfortable over the weeks, gradually pick up the pace to a moderate intensity where your heart rate is moderately elevated.”
Dr. Paluch added that the “talk test” — where you can still talk but not sing during your walk — is often a good way to gauge intensity.
“This incremental approach — increasing the volume and intensity of walking over multiple weeks and months can reduce the risk of injury and make the process of starting a walking routine more enjoyable,” Dr. Paluch said.
And as an important reminder, Dr. Cutler and other experts recommend stretching before setting out on a walk.
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