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Focusing on 10,000 steps a day could be a misstep

magic number for how many steps
There isn’t one magic number for how many steps we should take each day. But finding ways to walk more each day can make a big difference in your physical and mental health.

Bethany Agusala, M.D.
Internal Medicine – General Internal Medicine

We’ve heard for years that 10,000 is the magic number of steps we’re supposed to take each day for optimal health. Or is it 5,000? Or 7,000? Or even 15,000? Depending on which research study you read, steps-per-day recommendations are all over the place.

The average U.S. adult takes 3,000 to 4,000 steps per day, which is the equivalent of about 1.5 to 2 miles. Walking less than 5,000 steps each day is considered sedentary. And that original 10,000 number? It wasn’t based on science – it was likely just a goal chosen to help market the first commercial pedometer in the 1960s.

So, how many steps per day do we really need to prevent or improve health complications? A meta-analysis published in The Lancet earlier this year suggested 7,000 steps, not 10,000 as previously thought, could help people age 60 and older live longer. And the benefits for younger adults leveled off at about 9,000 steps.

If the science isn’t definitive on a magic number of steps, it is on a larger point: Walking is a very effective way to improve cardiovascular health, help with weight loss and maintenance, improve bone density, build muscle, and reduce stress. And research does show that any increase in steps can be good for your health.

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The many benefits of walking

Walking is a form of low-impact, moderate-intensity exercise that most people can do. It doesn’t require a gym membership or equipment other than a supportive pair of shoes. Walking truly can have a positive effect on every part of your body and wellness. For starters, it can reduce the risk of common health problems, such as:

Balance, blood flow, flexibility, muscle strength, and how well you sleep can also improve with regular walking – and the mental health benefits can be lifechanging. Walking can boost your energy, reduce stress, and improve mental clarity.

Don’t worry if your walking pace is slow and steady. Increasing how much you walk by even a little can still improve your health and help prevent health problems that can occur from not moving enough during the day.

Related reading: Forest bathing: The health benefits of spending time with nature

Set personal, achievable walking goals

How much you should walk each day may change over the course of your life. Steps-per-day goals should vary based on factors such as age, fitness level, and overall health.

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Our biomechanics become less efficient as we age, so we expend more energy with each step than we used to. Therefore, we may need to walk less to get the same benefits. While getting in 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day when we’re younger may be a good benchmark, 6,000 to 8,000 steps might be sufficient and more realistic later in life.

debate
We can debate the optimal number of steps a person should take, but we do know that small increases in your walking habits can lead to big results.

Your current fitness level should factor into how much you walk, too. If you normally take a couple thousand steps a day, it’s unreasonable to expect you to immediately increase that number to 10,000. But you can increase it by 50 steps, then 100 steps, and so on as your fitness level improves.

If you have a physically active job where you take 10,000 steps during the workday, you may not need to take a bunch of steps after work, too. Instead, you might want to consider strength or core training, or work on your flexibility. Work with your health care provider to set achievable walking goals based on your age, health, and fitness level.

There are a lot of wearable devices that help us track our steps, from iPhones to Fitbits. But you don’t need a fancy device to track your walking goals. If you don’t have access to a wearable tracker or pedometer, measure your walking by distance or minutes – most people walk a mile in 15 to 20 minutes.

No matter how you count your steps, just get walking.

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Easy tips to help you start walking more

It’s recommended that we get 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise such as walking. But you don’t need to set aside an hour every day for walking to reap the benefits. You can do 30 minutes five days a week or 10 minutes several times a day. You also can incorporate it into your everyday routine with strategies such as:

  • Take the stairs: We’re not suggesting you walk up 10 flights tomorrow. Start by walking up one or two flights and then catching the elevator the rest of the way.
  • Park farther away: It’s practically a national pastime to try to find the closest parking spot to your destination, but next time park in one of the many open spots farther away and take advantage of the extra steps.
  • Walk and talk: If possible, take phone calls in a place where you can walk or even just pace back and forth.
  • Walk while waiting: If you’re early for an appointment or you’re waiting for your kids to finish their activities, take a short walk instead of taking a seat.
  • Walk in place: There are myriad times during the day in which we are just standing around. So, next time you’re brushing your teeth or waiting for you food to warm up in the microwave, pick up your feet.
  • Move while working: Just because you work at a computer doesn’t mean you have to sit all day. If you have a standing desk, you can march in place. If you have a treadmill, you can buy accessories to turn it into a treadmill desk.
  • Celebrate your successes: When I hit my goal for the day, my Fitbit gives me a thumbs up and I stop whatever I’m doing to do a quick happy dance. It’s important to recognize when you accomplish what you set out to achieve.

Nearly everyone can benefit from walking more. Don’t get too hung up on the numbers or an unrealistic goal. Just move. And we are here to advise, encourage, and motivate you on your health journey – one step at a time.

To talk with a lifestyle medicine expert, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.

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