We often hear that we should walk 10,000 steps a day for good health and for weight loss. But where did that recommendation originate?
You may be surprised to learn how that guideline became so popular. It wasn’t based on research – it was created as a promotion by a pedometer company in Japan in the 1960s. The idea became more widespread as walking clubs adopted it as a goal.
That being said – it isn’t a bad goal to work toward. Any physical activity is beneficial, and the more steps you get in each day, the better.
Let’s take a look at what research does tell us about walking.
How fast you walk appears to matter quite a bit.
An analysis of more than 50,000 walkers conducted by the University of Sydney in 2018 found that walking pace matters. The researchers found that walking at an average pace was associated with a 20 percent risk reduction for all-cause mortality, compared with walking at a slow pace. Walking at a brisk or fast pace was associated with a risk reduction of 24 percent. Older age groups saw a pronounced protective effect. People 60 years of age and over who walked at an average pace experienced a 46 percent reduction in risk of death from cardiovascular causes. Fast-pace walkers experienced a 53 percent reduction, according to the study’s press release. How do you know if you are walking fast enough to reap these benefits? A good indicator is to walk at a pace that makes you slightly out of breath or sweaty when that pace is sustained, said lead author Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis.
“Especially in situations when walking more isn’t possible due to time pressures or a less walking-friendly environment, walking faster may be a good option to get the heart rate up – one that most people can easily incorporate into their lives,” Professor Stamatakis explained.
A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in 2018 also found that pace matters. For the study, researchers followed 1,078 hypertensive patients, of whom 85% also had coronary heart disease and 15% also had valve disease. They recorded the number of all-cause hospitalizations and length of stay over the next three years. During the three year period, 182 of the slow walkers (51%) had at least one hospitalization, compared to 160 (44%) of the intermediate walkers, and 110 (31%) of the fast walkers. The press release elaborates on the findings:
The slow, intermediate and fast walking groups spent a total of 4,186, 2,240, and 990 days in the hospital over the three years, respectively.
The average length of hospital stay for each patient was 23, 14, and 9 days for the slow, intermediate and fast walkers, respectively. Each 1 km/hour increase in walking speed resulted in a 19% reduction in the likelihood of being hospitalized during the three-year period. Compared to the slow walkers, fast walkers had a 37% lower likelihood of hospitalization in three years.
Another study published in 2018 found that walking for at least 40 minutes several times per week at an average to fast pace is associated with a near 25 percent drop in the risk of heart failure among post-menopausal women. The researchers found the benefit appears to be consistent regardless of a woman’s body weight or whether she engages in other forms of exercise besides walking. This study analyzed walking behavior and health outcomes in 89,000 women during a 10-year period. According to a press release published by the American College of Cardiology, this study is the first to examine the benefits of walking by parsing the effects of walking frequency, duration, and speed. It is also the first to specifically focus on the risk of heart failure among women over age 50.
Dr. Somwail Rasla, a cardiology fellow at Saint Vincent Hospital who conducted the study during his residency at Brown University, said of the findings:
“We actually looked at women with four different categories of body mass index (BMI) and found the same inverse relationship between walking behavior and the risk of heart failure. The results show that even obese and overweight women can still benefit from walking to decrease their risk of heart failure.”
Even lower intensity walking provides benefits.
A study conducted in Sweden found that there are considerable health benefits to be gained not only from moderate or intense physical activity but also from low-intensity (everyday) activity. Researchers analyzed how different levels of physical activity in 1,200 people across Sweden affected the mortality rate due to cardiovascular disease (among other causes) 15 years later.
Replacing half an hour’s sedentariness a day with low-level activity can reduce the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by an estimated 24 percent, the researchers found. While lower intensity exercise was shown to provide benefits, this study also found that replacing sedentariness with physical activity of at least moderate level equivalent to a brisk walk or higher intensity training had an even greater effect on cardiovascular-related mortality. “Ten minutes of moderate to intense activity a day reduced the risk of death due to cardiovascular disease by 38 percent, 30 minutes a day by a full 77 percent, according to their calculations,” the press release reports.
In 2017, researchers looked at data from nearly 140,000 participants in the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort and found that walking has the potential to significantly improve health. The team found that regular walking, even if not meeting the minimum recommended levels, is associated with lower mortality compared to inactivity. Walking for less than 2 hours per week was associated with lower all-cause mortality compared to no activity. “Meeting 1 to 2 times the minimum recommendation (2.5-5 hours/week) through walking-only was associated with 20% lower mortality risk. Results for those exceeding recommendations through walking-only were similar to those who met recommendations,” a press release reported.
Research has found several ways to stay motivated and to track progress.
Join a walking group and track your steps with a pedometer.
People may be more likely to stick to taking exercise if they walk in groups, according to a study published in January 2018. The research, led by Anglia Ruskin University, also found that group walking plays a part in improved physical activity and better quality of life. Researchers analyzed 18 studies of physically healthy adults who walked in groups compared with those who walked alone (or not at all). They found that people who participated in group walking were more likely to have kept up the exercise by the end of the study, which was an average of six months later.
Researchers at the University of St George’s London found that people who use pedometers to count their steps as part of a 12-week walking program had a healthier, more active lifestyle three to four years later.
If you’d like to use a device to count your steps, you have a lot of options, including basic pedometers, fitness trackers, waterproof fitness watches, and more sophisticated trackers like FitBit Smart Fitness watches with heart rate monitors and GPS and the Apple Watch (this one even has an Emergency SOS feature). (ALL of those are Amazon links)
No pedometer? No problem – you can still estimate your steps.
If you do not have a pedometer and do not want to use complex calculations to figure out your walking intensity, you can measure your walking cadence instead, according to research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Catrine Tudor-Locke, professor of kinesiology, and postdoctoral researchers Elroy Aguiar and Scott Ducharme concluded that for adults, age 21-40, walking about 100 steps per minute constitutes moderate intensity, while vigorous walking begins at about 130 steps per minute. To use this method, count your steps for 15 seconds and multiply by four to determine steps per minute.
In a press release, the researchers elaborated on their findings:
Aguiar said that the natural walking pace of 90 percent of the study participants was above the moderate-pace threshold. “If you just tell people to walk at their normal speed, they probably are going to walk above 100 steps per minute. Asking people to walk for exercise is a low-cost, low-skill, feasible activity choice which has the potential to drastically improve people’s health,” he says.
The research suggests a simple but powerful public health message: Just walk, as much as possible. “Our society has engineered movement out of our life,” Aguiar says. “We have TVs, we have cars, we have remotes. It’s clear that you can achieve the public health guidelines for physical activity through walking.”
How many steps per day is ideal?
Public health organizations typically offer recommendations for physical activity in general, not for walking specifically. Of course, walking IS physical activity, so let’s take a look at what general guidelines for that say.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Physical Activity Guidelines recommends the following:
For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week. Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
How do we translate those guidelines into steps?
The time it takes to reach 10,000 steps depends on intensity of your steps. For moderate intensity, take 100 steps per minute, and for vigorous intensity, take 130 steps per minute.
If your walking pace is moderate in intensity, it would take you 100 minutes to reach 10,000 steps. If you do this every day, you’ll get a little over 11 hours of walking in each week.
If your pace is vigorous in intensity, it would take you 77 minutes to reach 10,000 steps. If you do this every day, you’ll get close to 9 hours of walking in each week.
As you can see, walking at a moderate to vigorous intensity every day (or nearly every day) exceeds general recommendations for physical activity.
If you want to think in terms of distance, 2,000 steps is about a mile, and 10,000 steps equals roughly 5 miles.
Do you need reasons to start a walking routine? Here are a bunch!
- Lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia and Alzheimer’s, several types of cancer, and some complications of pregnancy
- Better sleep, including improvements in insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea
- Improved cognition, including memory, attention and processing speed
- Less weight gain, obesity and related chronic health conditions
- Better bone health and balance, with less risk of injury from falls
- Fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Better quality of life and sense of overall well-being
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) reports that regular physical activity:
- Improves good cholesterol (HDL)
- Lowers blood pressure (it is recommended to shoot for a top number (systolic) of 120 mm Hg or lower)
- Aids in weight management
- Reduces HbA1c (measure for diabetic control)
- Reduces inflammation
- Reduces mental stress
- Reduces the incidence of depression
How can you add more steps every day?
This depends on several factors, including your current activity level and overall health.
First, figure out what your baseline is. Put on a pedometer or fitness monitor or use an app (remember to carry your smartphone with you throughout the day if you use an app). Go about your day as usual. At the end of the day, check your step count. Do this for a week, and calculate your average.
Then, gradually add steps every day.
According to a report from VeryWellFit, Professor Tudor-Locke advises a goal of 10,000 steps per day as a good baseline. She offers these tips to match physical activity recommendations for heart health:
- Increase your daily steps by 3,000 to 4,000 steps taken during bouts of 10-minutes or longer at moderate-to-vigorous intensity, which is a pace of brisk walking to jogging.
- Achieve a goal of 8,900 to 9,900 steps at least five days per week with at least 3,000 steps of moderate-to-vigorous intensity bouts of 10 minutes or more.
- Alternatively, set a goal of 9,150 to 10,150 steps at least three days per week with at least 3,250 steps of vigorous intensity bouts of 10 minutes or more.
Here’s how to fit 10,000 steps into your busy schedule.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to get all of your steps in one walking session. All of the walking you do during the day counts! Here are some ways to sneak in more steps to help you reach your goal.
- If you drive to work, park farther away from your office.
- Get off the bus or train one stop earlier and walk home.
- Take several shorter walks daily, preferably outside. Yes, even during the colder months! Research shows that spending time outside during winter provides many benefits.
- Go for walks during your lunch break and other work breaks. Even 10 minute walks spread through the day add up.
- Join a walking group. Sites like MeetUp have lots of them. If you can’t find a group, consider starting one.
- Take the stairs instead of using elevators and escalators.
If you walk alone, please keep these safety tips in mind:
- Stay alert – if you use headphones, be sure to keep the volume low or leave an earbud out of one ear so you can hear what is going on around you. Don’t look down at your device – practice situational awareness.
- Tell someone your planned route and your expected return time. Ask them to check on you at that time.
- Carry a personal safety device like pepper spray, an alarm, or a stun gun (legality for each varies in different localities).
- Know how to avoid possible attackers, and how to defend yourself should someone attack you.
- Wear bright colors. Carry a flashlight if you walk when visibility is low.
Do you currently walk on a regular basis? Do you have tips for other readers? Let us know in the comments!