HEALTH: scientists say the optimal number of daily steps for longevity is not 10,000.

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.

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