For the past couple of decades, we’ve been reading headlines about the health benefits of accumulating 10,000 steps per day, the rough equivalent of walking five miles.
That can be a pretty intimidating number for many people, but especially for older adults. Luckily, a recent study by a team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found a significant decrease in mortality rates among older women who took far fewer steps per day.
So, if you find yourself frowning at the step count on your activity tracker at the end of each day, read on for good news.
It’s Just a Random Number!
Before launching the study that tracked over 16,000 older women for more than four years, lead researcher, Dr. I-Min Lee, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, wondered: “Where did this number of 10,000 steps per day even come from?”
“These days, people aren’t asking how much exercise they should be doing; instead they’re asking, ‘How little can I do and still have benefit?'”
She was surprised to find the benchmark didn’t come from scientific research. The number first popped up in 1965, when a Japanese company developed a pedometer it called Manpo-kei — in English, “10,000 steps meter.”
Lee and colleagues wondered, then, how many steps per day really are necessary to confer health benefits?
“These days, people aren’t asking how much exercise they should be doing; instead they’re asking, ‘How little can I do and still have benefit?’” Lee says.
And she was particularly interested in answering that question for older women, who make up one of the least active segments of the population. Her team set out to answer two questions: How many steps per day could make a significant difference in the health of older women, and did it matter whether those steps were fast or slow?
To answer the number-of-steps question, Lee and colleagues determined the average steps per day of 16,741 women age 62 to 101 (mean age 72) who each wore a research-grade accelerometer for seven days.
They assigned the women to one of four quartiles, based on their step counts: The lowest group accumulated only 2,700 steps on average; the next quartile averaged 4,400 steps per day; the third quartile reached 7,500 and the top quartile averaged more than 7,500 steps each day. The team then tracked deaths among the study participants over the next 4.3 years. The results were surprising.
The biggest drop in death rates was seen between the first and second quartile, with 41 percent fewer deaths among the group that averaged 4,400 steps per day versus only 2,700.
A smaller, but still significant benefit was seen between the 4,400 and 7,500 steps per day groups, but no additional benefit was seen in those who averaged more than 7,500 steps per day.
Perhaps equally interesting, intensity (in this case, walking speed) did not affect the results. So as long as two women were taking the same number of steps, it didn’t matter whether those steps were slow or fast.
What About Men and Other Age Groups?
“The big caveat,” Lee stresses, “is that this was a group of older women.”
Although the researchers can’t say with any certainty whether their findings are applicable to other age groups or men, Lee hypothesized that the findings should be similar among other age groups with similar activity levels, including older men, and younger men and women who are equally sedentary for one reason or another.
However, it’s very possible that more active men and women of all ages may need to accumulate more daily steps to achieve a health boost, she says.
Good News to Get You Moving
One factor that differentiated this study from others was that it directly measured all steps taken over a seven-day period, whereas many other studies rely on self-reported estimates of walking speed, or only measure steps taken during intentional exercise.
“This study is more generous because it counted every step,” Lee explains. “It’s the ‘move more method,’ so don’t sweat it if you’re older or overweight and you can’t move as quickly.”
Indeed, rather than focusing on even the relatively modest 4,400-step average, Lee has begun encouraging people to simply take 2,000 more steps per day than they currently do. “That’s about 1 mile, which can sound like a lot,” Lee said, “but you don’t have to walk intentionally. All steps count, so it’s actually really doable.”
Is the News Motivating or Not?
While this news will undoubtedly be motivational to many, could a lower step threshold instead lead people to rest on their laurels more?
“No!” says Kris Bigalk, a 52-year-old writing professor from Minneapolis. “With more steps, I get to eat what I want. For so many years I just avoided foods that I liked, but now I can treat myself more if I get more steps in.”
To keep her daily calorie balance in check, Bigalk uses a couple of different phone apps (such as MyFitnessPal). She also appreciates the other health benefits that more movement can offer. “With fitness, I want to front load this aging thing by staying in as good a shape as I can for as long as I can.”
June Noronha, a 70-year-old consultant who works from her home in St. Paul, Minn., had a slightly different take. “With my lifestyle when I was working in an office, it was really hard to get to ten thousand steps. But I think, even now, success would prompt me to do it more. Five thousand steps seems really doable. Of course, I would want to surpass that. I would still want to do ten thousand steps every day, but I wouldn’t feel like I blew it when I only got five thousand.”
While the study delivers great news to older adults and sedentary people in all age groups, Lee and her team are in the process of conducting follow-up studies to look at other population groups, as well as the specific health factors affected.
In the meantime, there’s little doubt that we can all benefit from getting up and moving more. Right now might be a good time for a computer break, no?
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