Walking 10K steps a day is a health sweet spot, study finds — and walking faster is even better

Walking can reduce risks of dementia, cancer and heart disease — and any number of steps is better than none.

By studying people wearing fitness trackers, researchers have determined that walking 10,000 steps each day is indeed a ‘sweet spot’ for a range of health outcomes, but how fast you walk could be just as important. Francis Ferland CBC

by Maya Lach-Aidelbaum, CBC Radio Quirks & Quarks September 16, 2022

In recent years, walking 10,000 steps a day has become a popular fitness goal, but until now, there wasn’t much scientific research to back that number.

A number of studies have shown that physical exercise can improve health and provide anti-aging benefits, but few have looked at exactly how many steps people should walk per day to optimize those benefits.

Now, scientists have determined that the big round number of 10,000 steps is indeed a great goal for a range of health outcomes, but how fast you walk could be just as important.

Scientists from the University of Sydney and the University of Southern Denmark studied 78,500 adults in the U.K. between 2013 and 2015.

They wore activity trackers 24 hours a day for one week, which recorded how many steps they walked as well as the pace at which they walked. Researchers looked at their health outcomes seven years later.

They found that walking 10,000 steps a day lowers the risk of dementia by about 50 per cent, the risk of cancer by about 30 per cent and the risk of cardiovascular disease by about 75 per cent.

The study notes that the findings are “observational, meaning they cannot show direct cause and effect.” But it stressed the “strong and consistent associations seen across both studies at the population level.”

The participants consented to provide researchers their health records, including inpatient hospital registries, primary care records and cancer and death registries.

The data was collected as part of the largest study tracking step counts in the world in relation to health outcomes.

Their work was published earlier this month in the journals JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology.

Fitness trackers often encourage users to walk 10,000 steps a day, but until now, there wasn’t much scientific research to back that number. Patrick Hearn photo

Borja del Pozo Cruz, one of the lead researchers on the study, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that the 10,000-step goal actually originated from a 1960s Japanese marketing campaign aimed at selling pedometers.

The pedometer, produced by the company Yamasa, was called the manpo-kei, which translates literally into “10,000 step metre.”

At the time there was no scientific research to back that number and little had been done since, largely because it was difficult to gather precise data before digital activity trackers exploded in popularity.

Del Pozo Cruz, who is also a senior researcher in health sciences at the University of Cadiz in Spain and an adjunct professor at Southern Denmark University, said he and his team were surprised that the 10,000-step mark seemed to be the sweet spot for better health outcomes.

But the study also found that you don’t have to walk the full 10,000 steps a day to get significant health benefits.

“I guess for me at least, the most important finding was that on the very first step, the benefits are there,” del Pozo Cruz said.

Results showed that every 2,000 steps walked lowered the risk of premature death incrementally by eight to 11 per cent, up to approximately 10,000 steps a day. The study found that beyond 10,000 steps, health outcomes plateaued.

“For some people, this [10,000] figure might be unrealistic,” said del Pozo Cruz. “The important bit is that every step counts. Just get out there and do it, because anything is better than nothing.”

Previous studies have touted the benefits of walking, including one in 2019 that found walking as little as 2,000 steps a day could lower mortality rates.

But del Pozo Cruz says that while these studies have focused on mortality rates, his team’s study is the first to examine the link between walking and health outcomes like cancer, dementia and cardiovascular diseases.

Faster is better

The study also found that walking at a faster pace was associated with further benefits for all outcomes they measured.

For example, del Pozo Cruz said walking 10,000 steps a day cuts the risk of dementia by 50 per cent — but walking at a faster pace can add an extra 10 to 15 per cent reduction in risk.

“How fast you walk is as important, if not more important, than how much you walk,” he said. “For even more optimal health you would go about doing 10,000 steps and perhaps 30 minutes of those at a faster pace.”

Del Pozo Cruz said that very high step counts — in the range of 20,000 steps and beyond — may actually decrease health benefits.

He added that his team hopes to soon replicate the study in more diverse populations, as the current data set was composed of mainly white, healthy, well-educated individuals between 40 and 79 years old.

LISTEN – Quirks and Quarks with Bob McDonald – April 30, 2022
Joggers may be trying to make an effort, but mostly we run as efficiently as possible. 6:56 CBC Radio
Recreational runners may try to exert themselves during their exercise, but Jessica Selinger, a neuromechanics researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, has found that humans’ natural tendency is to run at a speed that conserves calories. By studying data from thousands of wearable fitness trackers, the team found that regardless of distance travelled, runners tended to stay at a consistent speed that uses the least amount of energy. It seems the evolutionary drive to conserve energy is fighting our desire to burn calories while exercising. The research was published in Current Biology.

Source CBC Radio Quirks & Quarks


Prospective Associations of Daily Step Counts and Intensity With Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Incidence and Mortality and All-Cause Mortality, Del Pozo Cruz B, Ahmadi MN, Lee IM, Stamatakis E. JAMA Intern Med. 2022 Sep 12. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2022.4000. Epub ahead of print. Full text

Association of Daily Step Count and Intensity With Incident Dementia in 78 430 Adults Living in the UK, Del Pozo Cruz B, Ahmadi M, Naismith SL, Stamatakis E. JAMA Neurol. 2022 Sep 6:e222672. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.2672. Epub ahead of print. Erratum in: JAMA Neurol. 2022 Sep 9. Full text

Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women, Lee IM, Shiroma EJ, Kamada M, Bassett DR, Matthews CE, Buring JE. JAMA Intern Med. 2019 Aug 1;179(8):1105-1112. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.0899. Full text

Daily step count and all-cause mortality in a sample of Japanese elderly people: a cohort study, Yamamoto N, Miyazaki H, Shimada M, Nakagawa N, Sawada SS, Nishimuta M, Kimura Y, Kawakami R, Nagayama H, Asai H, Lee IM, Blair SN, Yoshitake Y. BMC Public Health. 2018 Apr 23;18(1):540. doi: 10.1186/s12889-018-5434-5.

Humans Can Continuously Optimize Energetic Cost during Walking, Selinger JC, O’Connor SM, Wong JD, Donelan JM. Curr Biol. 2015 Sep 21;25(18):2452-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.016. Epub 2015 Sep 10. Full text, PDF

  Further reading

Association of step counts over time with the risk of chronic disease in the All of Us Research Program, Master H, Annis J, Huang S, Beckman JA, Ratsimbazafy F, Marginean K, Carroll R, Natarajan K, Harrell FE, Roden DM, Harris P, Brittain EL. Nat Med. 2022 Oct 10. doi: 10.1038/s41591-022-02012-w. Epub ahead of print. Full text, PDF

Leveraging goals to incentivize healthful behaviors across adulthood, Raposo S, Hogan CL, Barnes JT, Chemudupati T, Carstensen LL. Psychol Aging. 2021 Feb;36(1):57-68. doi: 10.1037/pag0000428. Epub 2020 Jul 6. Full text, PDF

Energy optimization is a major objective in the real-time control of step width in human walking, Abram SJ, Selinger JC, Donelan JM. J Biomech. 2019 Jun 25;91:85-91. doi: 10.1016/j.jbiomech.2019.05.010. Epub 2019 May 17.

Association of Daily Step Count and Step Intensity With Mortality Among US Adults, Saint-Maurice PF, Troiano RP, Bassett DR Jr, Graubard BI, Carlson SA, Shiroma EJ, Fulton JE, Matthews CE. JAMA. 2020 Mar 24;323(12):1151-1160. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.1382. Full text

Four-year follow-up of the community intervention ‘10,000 steps Ghent’, De Cocker KA, De Bourdeaudhuij IM, Brown WJ, Cardon GM. Health Educ Res. 2011 Apr;26(2):372-80. doi: 10.1093/her/cyr015. Epub 2011 Mar 10. Full text, PDF

Pedometer-measured physical activity and health behaviors in U.S. adults, Bassett DR Jr, Wyatt HR, Thompson H, Peters JC, Hill JO. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Oct;42(10):1819-25. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181dc2e54. Full text, PDF

Also see
Counting steps can reduce disease risk: study Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Exercise is the best anti-aging therapy CBC Radio Quirks & Quarks
Do We Really Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day for Our Health? The New York Times

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