Walking just 4,000 steps a day can reduce your risk of death
A new worldwide meta-analysis has looked at the minimum number of steps needed to reduce the risk of dying from any cause and cardiovascular disease. The study shows that it takes fewer steps than we first thought to reap the health benefits of walking.
We probably all know someone obsessed with the number of steps they take in a day, regularly looking at their fitness tracker, determined to reap the health benefits associated with getting to that magical 10,000-step benchmark. But do we really need to take 10,000 steps a day to see benefits?
To answer that question, researchers from the University of Lodz in Poland have led the world’s largest meta-analysis into the health benefits of walking to determine how many steps are needed to reduce the risk of dying.
They analyzed 17 studies from around the world, adding up to a sample size of 226,889 people. Studies were considered eligible if they reported the role of the daily number of steps in the general population and followed participants for an average of seven years. The main endpoints were all-cause mortality and death from cardiovascular disease and their relationship with different numbers of steps, up to 20,000 steps a day.
“Until now, it’s not been clear what is the optimal number of steps, both in terms of the cut-off points over which we can start to see health benefits, and the upper limit, if any, and the role this plays in people’s health,” said Ibadete Bytyçi, one of the study’s co-authors. “However, I should emphasize that there were limited data available on step counts up to 20,000 a day, and so these results need to be confirmed in larger groups of people.”
The researchers found that walking at least 3,967 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause, whereas 2,337 steps a day reduced the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The risk of dying decreased significantly for every 500 to 1,000 extra steps above these minimums: taking 500 extra steps was associated with a 7% reduction in death from cardiovascular disease; an extra 1,000 reduced the risk of dying from any cause by 15%. No upper limit was found, meaning that the health benefits of walking increased with the number of steps taken.
“Our study confirms that the more you walk, the better,” said Maciej Banach, lead author of the study. “We found that this applies to both men and women, irrespective of age, and irrespective of whether you live in a temperate, sub-tropical or sub-polar region of the world, or a region with a mixture of climates. In addition, our analysis indicates that as little as 4,000 steps a day are needed to significantly reduce deaths from any cause, and even fewer to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease.”
A sedentary lifestyle has been associated with an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. While the global prevalence of physical activity has declined in recent years, the arrival of the COVID pandemic in 2019 resulted in a further reduction in activity levels. The current study demonstrates that even a minimal change from inactivity to low physical activity can produce health benefits, the researchers say.
“In a world where we have more and more advanced drugs to target specific conditions such as cardiovascular disease, I believe we should always emphasize that lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, which was a main hero of our analysis, might be at least as, or even more effective in reducing cardiovascular risk and prolonging lives,” Banach said.
While the strengths of the meta-analysis include its sample size and that it was not restricted to studies limited to a maximum of 16,000 steps a day, there are some limitations. Importantly, because it’s looking at observational studies, it can’t prove that step count causes a reduction in risk of death, only that there’s an association. Also, the impact of step counts was not tested on people with different diseases; all participants were generally healthy when they entered their respective studies.
The study was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.