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How many steps a day helps your health?

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Researchers can’t agree on the number of steps we need to walk to improve our health—but the benefits start after just a short stroll, it seems

We have to keep moving, especially as we get older—but we don’t have to hit the mythical 10,000-steps-a-day mark to stay healthy. Walking just 3,600 steps every day by the time you reach 60 is enough to reduce the risk of heart failure by 26 percent, researchers have discovered.

A team led by Michael J. Lamonte from the University of Buffalo tracked the impact of walking on a group of 6,000 women aged 63–99.1 For every 90 minutes the women spent sitting, they found, heart failure risk rose by 17 percent.

However, that risk was reversed by light physical activity such as household chores and caring for someone. Moderate activity included walking at a normal pace, climbing the stairs or gardening.

Other researchers have found that walking a little farther increases the health benefits. Walk 10,000 steps a day, and you reduce your risk of premature death by 39 percent and cardiovascular disease by 21 percent, say a team led by researchers from the University of Sydney, who studied the activity levels of around 72,000 volunteers with an average age of 61.2

The median time spent sitting or sleeping was around 10 hours a day. The researchers reckoned the optimal number of steps to walk every day was between 9,000 and 10,000 to counter those sedentary hours, but they saw participants reap half the benefits after walking a little over 4,000 steps.

And you don’t even have to walk that much to see health benefits, says another study by a research team from the London School of Economics. They estimate walking just 5,000 steps three times a week is enough to help us live longer and keep us out of the hospital.3

The researchers trawled the database of health insurer Vitality, which had tracked the behavior of around a million people in its health program.

The over-65s especially benefited from walking a little farther each day; those who walked 7,500 steps three times or more each week halved their risk of premature death. Younger participants aged 45–65 also saw a benefit, and their premature death risk fell by 38 percent. Overall, walking 5,000 steps three times a week adds around 2.5 years to the lifespan of a man and three years to that of a woman.

The 7,500-steps target seems to be the tipping point; beyond that, any health benefits were incremental. People who walk 10,000 steps three times a week for three years reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 41 percent; increase that to four times a week, and the risk falls by 57 percent.

If you already have diabetes, walking 5,000 steps three times a week can reduce your risk of a premature death by 40 percent.

Step counts and health

Walking every day

3,000 steps: reduce heart failure risk 26%

4,000 steps: reduce premature death risk 18% and CVD risk 10%

10,000 steps: reduce premature death risk 39% and heart disease (CVD) risk 21%

Walking three times a week

5,000 steps: add 2–3 years to lifespan; type 2 diabetics reduce premature death risk 40%

7,500 steps: reduce premature death risk 38%–50%

10,000 steps: reduce type 2 diabetes risk 41%

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References
 
  1. JAMA Cardiol, 2024; 9(4): 336–345
  2. Br J Sports Med, 2024; 58(5):261–268
  3. Vitality, “Walking 5,000 Steps Three Times per Week Could Save the NHS £15 Billion,” March 12, 2024, vitality.co.uk
JUN24, '10,000 steps? No, make that 3,000'
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