Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the journey to a long and healthy life begins with 10,000 steps. Every day.
For those who lead a more sedentary lifestyle, this is a goal that may take some effort to maintain. We’ve also known for some time that it’s also almost certainly not true.
By analyzing data on tens of thousands of people on four continents compiled across 15 existing studies, a team of researchers has now landed on a more comfortable number: the optimal number is probably closer to 6,000 steps per day, depending on your age.
Nothing more is likely to further reduce your chances of falling into an early grave.
“So what we saw was this gradual reduction in risk as steps increased, until it leveled off,” says Amanda Paluch, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“And the leveling off occurred at different step values for older and younger adults.”
Humans are essentially built to move. Evolution has honed our physiology to travel long distances, easily shedding heat as we tick back and forth like inverted pendulums across the landscape in search of food and water.
This means that our metabolism, cardiovascular fitness, bone and muscle impact, and even our mental health are all tuned to enjoy a good hike. Dialing in just about any type of walk into our busy schedule will serve us well in helping us live longer, healthier, happier lives.
This is easier said than done for those who lack the time or motivation, which is why technology companies have invented small devices that help us track the number of steps we take each day.
Half a century ago, the Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company in Japan sought to capitalize on the buzz left over from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by producing a pedometer they called “Manpo-kei” — a word that translates to 10,000 steps.
Why 10,000? Good old-fashioned marketing. It’s a nice round number that seems taxing enough to be a goal, but achievable enough to be worth striving for. What it doesn’t have is scientific support.
Having a single figure to promote to a general population is certainly helpful. “It’s such a clear communication tool for public health messages,” Paluch says.
But getting that number right could mean the difference between encouraging everyone to get enough exercise and discouraging people from trying altogether.
Last year, Paluch and his team published research based on a cohort of more than 2,000 middle-aged people living in the United States. They found that taking at least 7,000 steps a day reduced the risk of premature death by 50 to 70 percent.
Those words “at least” do some heavy lifting. With questions remaining about whether more is better, and whether squeezing all those steps in at a faster pace is helpful in any way, the research team expanded their net to include previously published research.
Their latest meta-analysis included information collected on the health and step counts of 47,471 adults from Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. They found that the 25% of adults who took the most steps each day had a 40–53% lower risk of dying, compared to the bottom 25%.
For adults aged 60 and older, this reduced risk reached about 6,000 to 8,000 steps per day. Pushing further could have other benefits, but a reduced risk of death.