How many steps should you rack up per day for optimal health? Recommendations vary widely, making any answer seem like a shot in the dark, at best.
A new international study published Thursday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology offers some more concrete advice, with a twist.
Your number of daily steps matter, the authors say—but so does your pace. Researchers found that walking faster was associated with a reduced risk of death—regardless of the number of steps taken per day.
That makes sense, they say, because moderate-to-vigorous exercise is considered to be the most beneficial when it comes to cardiovascular health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week for most adults, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity..
The new study isn’t the first to find that the faster one walks, the more health benefits they should expect. A 2022 UK-based study found that the more steps a day, up to around 10,000, the lower one’s risk of dementia—and that walking quickly might lower dementia risk as well.
And a 2022 Brazil-based study found that the greater the number of daily steps—and the quicker the pace of those steps—the less likely someone was to suffer from arterial stiffness.
Walking at a pace of around 100 steps/minute, 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week would meet the weekly requirements for moderate exercise for older adults, Brazilian researchers stated. A 2011 international study echoed these findings, stating that 100 steps-per-minute equated moderate physical activity.
What’s the optimal amount of daily steps?
In the new international study, researchers from the Netherlands, Spain, and the U.S. examined data from 12 studies involving a total of more than 111,000 participants. Among their findings:
- 2,500 daily steps is about the point at which the risk of death was significantly reduced (by 8%), when compared to 2,000 daily steps.
- 2,700 daily steps is about the point at which the risk of both fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease events like heart attack and stroke was significantly reduced (by 11%), when compared to 2,000 daily steps.
- 7,000 daily steps, roughly, is the optimal number for those looking to reduce their risk of both fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease events (51% reduction).
- 9,000 daily steps, roughly, is the optimal number for those looking to reduce their risk of death from any cause (60% reduction).
- Each 1,000 additional daily steps, or about 10 minutes of walking, will reduce your risk of death to some extent, though not in predictable intervals.
- Each additional 500 daily steps, or about 5 minutes of walking, will improve the health of those with low levels of physical activity.
According to popular wisdom, 10,000 is the ideal number of steps to net per day. The advice originated from Japan in the 1960s, the study’s authors wrote, but there’s no data to back it up.
Other studies have offered similar recommendations, including:
- 4,000 daily steps to significantly reduce the chance of death, according to an August 2023 study
- 8,000-9,000 daily steps to reduce the risk of common diseases like diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, GERD, depression, and obesity, according to an October 2022 study
- 4,400 daily steps to reduce risk of death by 41% when compared to 2,700 steps per day, with no further significant risk reduction after 7,500 steps, according to a May 2019 study
The pandemic sent steps plummeting
The research comes as scientists begin to realize the full weight of the pandemic in terms of long-lasting health effects on society. The number of steps people take each day plummeted during the early days of COVID-19—and they’ve yet to recover, according to a study published earlier this year.
Researchers with Vanderbilt University examined the daily step patterns of nearly 5,500 people for two years before the pandemic and nearly two years into it. They found that, on average, study participants took about 700 fewer steps per day after the pandemic—equivalent to about a third of a mile less each day.
Pre-pandemic steps were around 7,808 a day. Steps after COVID hovered around 7,089.
The average American walks 3,000-4,000 steps per day, or roughly 1.5-2 miles, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic. Those who take less than 5,000 steps a day are considered sedentary, according to researchers at Vanderbilt.
Such a thing as too many steps?
There is no such thing as too many steps, according to the international research team behind the new article.
“Our study showed that even as many as 16,000 steps a day does not pose a risk,” co-author Francisco Ortega—a sports science instructor at the University of Granada in Spain—said in a news release on the new study. Additional risk reduction becomes marginal beyond 10,000 steps, however.
But those who are already comfortably hitting 10,000 steps a day should consider a higher daily step goal, according to Mayo experts. For those who haven’t hit 10,000 daily steps, they recommend working up to the goal by adding 1,000 extra steps each day for 2 weeks before raising their goal again.
How to add more steps into your day
If you’re looking to sneak some extra steps into your day, here are a few easy ways, according to the American on the Move Foundation:
• Walk to get the mail, and circle around the block an extra time when you do.
• Chat about the day with loved ones on an after-dinner walk.
• Take an energizing stroll before your morning commute.
• Start an office walking club.
• Volunteer to walk dogs for an animal shelter.
• Take the stairs instead of an escalator or elevator.
• Exit the bus a couple of stops early and walk the rest of the way.
• Play a round of golf, minus the cart.
• Swim laps at a pool.
• Go dancing at a club.
• Join a volleyball team, indoor or outdoor.
• Pick up a tennis match.
• Go ice skating at a local rink.
• Park as far away as you can in parking lots.