How many steps per day are needed for longevity? Fewer than 10 000, says large study

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  • Achieving 10 000 steps a day has long been seen as a benchmark for fitness and health. 
  • However, more and more evidence is showing that one can aim for fewer steps and still achieve longevity.
  • A meta-analysis suggests that especially older adults can make do with fewer than 10 000 steps per day.  

The well-being and longevity benefits of a daily stroll have long been known. However, the "need" for 10 000 steps a day in order to attain these benefits has been a hot topic among experts and the general public for years.

Now, a new meta-analysis, which combined the results of 15 scientific studies involving nearly 50 000 adults from four continents, offers a fresh perspective. Its findings suggest that the optimal number of steps you should aim for really depends on your age.

The research team found that while taking more steps a day does have value in lowering the risk of premature death in adults 60 and older, this benefit is already seen at around 6 000 to 8 000 steps per day. In other words, any additional steps didn’t appear to provide longevity benefits. 

For adults under 60 years, on the other hand, the researchers found that the risk of premature death stabilised at 8 000 to 10 000 steps per day.

"So, what we saw was this incremental reduction in risk as steps increase, until it levels off," said lead author of the study, Dr Amanda Paluch, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts.

"And the levelling occurred at different step values for older versus younger adults," she added. 

The study, which included collaboration from an international group of scientists, was recently published in The Lancet Public Health.

Where did the trend originate?

The 10 000 steps a day mantra seems to have originated from a marketing campaign dating as far back as 1965. In an article in The Conversation, Lindsay Bottoms, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Hertfordshire, explains how a Japanese company, Yamasa Clock, sold a personal-fitness pedometer called the Manpo-kei, which translates to “10 000 steps meter”.

But there was no science to back up the impact of taking 10 000 steps a day on a person’s health.

Similar findings in earlier research

The current meta-analysis supports the findings from an earlier study, also led by Paluch. That study found that walking at least 7 000 steps per day reduced middle-aged people's risk of early death. 

Other research from Harvard Medical School has shown that, on average, around 4 400 daily steps were enough to significantly lower the risk of death in women. However, the same study found that more steps reduced their risk of dying, but, like the results of the current study, this levelled off at around 7 500 daily steps. 

"Steps are very simple to track, and there is a rapid growth of fitness tracking devices," said Paluch, who has been studying the evidence, along with colleagues, to help establish guide recommendations for simple and accessible physical activity, such as walking.

She added: "It's such a clear communication tool for public health messaging."

Designing the study

The 15 studies included in their meta-analysis investigated the association between daily steps and all-cause mortality among adults 18 years and older. 

The research team grouped the 47 471 adult participants of the studies into four comparative groups, based on the average number of steps per day. 

The lowest step group averaged 3 500 steps; the second, 5 800; the third, 7 800; and the fourth, 10 900 steps per day.

The three higher active groups had a 40–53% lower risk of death, compared to the group who walked fewer steps, the researchers found.

"The major takeaway is there's a lot of evidence suggesting that moving even a little more is beneficial, particularly for those who are doing very little activity," Paluch said. 

She added: "More steps per day are better for your health. And the benefit in terms of mortality risk levels off around 6 000 to 8 000 for older adults and 8 000 to 10 000 for younger adults."

What about speed?

The team didn’t identify any definitive association with participants’ walking speed, beyond the total number of steps they took per day, said Paluch. This means that you should place more focus on getting in your number of steps, instead of the pace you walk at, as this was found to be the link to a lower risk of death.

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READ | Do we really need to walk 10 000 steps a day?

READ | 50-year-old muscles just can’t grow big like they used to – biology of how muscles change with age

READ | 5 tips for choosing the best YouTube fitness videos to change your exercise behaviour

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