You and your doctor already use many “metrics” or measurements to monitor, protect, and improve your health: your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. But there’s another metric that is just as informative about your health and well-being that you and your doctor probably don’t track, but should: the number of steps you take every day.
Steps are an objective and accurate measure of how much you walk every day. And physical activities like walking (or the lack thereof) play a key role in your health and longevity. Two recent scientific studies show the crucial link between daily steps—and staying alive.
Risk of death halved
In a study published in September 2021 in JAMA Network Open, scientists from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst tracked the daily steps of more than 2,000 middle-aged people. After 15 years, those who walked an average of at least 7,000 steps per day had an astounding 50 percent lower risk of premature death from any cause, compared with people who walked fewer than 7,000 daily steps.
That result may surprise you because taking 10,000 steps per day is routinely recommended for optimal health, but there is little scientific evidence to support that recommendation. That result may also hearten you and motivate you because 7,000 steps a day is much easier to achieve than 10,000.
In another study, published in Lancet Public Health in March 2022, an international team of researchers analyzed data from 47,000 people across 15 studies on daily step count and mortality. They found a much lower risk of “all-cause mortality” (death from any cause) in people over age 60 who regularly took 6,000 to 8,000 steps a day, compared with people who walked less.
Walking 7,000 steps a day doesn’t just keep you alive; it also keeps you healthy:
- Studies show that it can lower high blood pressure, the No. 1 risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
- It lowers your risk of developing and dying from heart disease.
- It improves insulin sensitivity, the main risk factor for developing diabetes. (Insulin is the hormone that ushers blood sugar out of the bloodstream and into cells.)
- It lowers A1C—a measurement of long-term blood sugar levels—suggesting that it helps prevent or control type 2 diabetes.
- It helps prevents overweight and helps you maintain weight loss after you’ve shed pounds. Maintaining a normal weight reduces the risk of osteoarthritis and chronic pain because there’s less strain on the knees and hips.
- Walking 7,000 steps a day is also linked to better mood—particularly less depression and anxiety.
- It also helps build bone density, strengthen lungs, and deepen sleep.
Small increases, big benefits
You don’t even need to reach 7,000 steps a day to see significant benefits to your health. Research from McGill University in Canada shows that taking just 1,200 additional steps per day can decrease your risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and dying from heart disease. It also can lower blood sugar, insulin, and insulin resistance, helping you prevent or control diabetes. It can even decrease your risk of all-cause mortality. These improvements are less than what you would achieve by walking 7,000 steps a day, but they’re still significantly protective.
The benefits of increasing your step count by 1,200 a day are greatest in people who currently take the fewest steps. For example, if you’re already walking 9,000 steps a day, increasing to 10,200 won’t make that big of a difference in your health. But if your steps per day are currently 4,000—a common level for people who aren’t physically active—getting to 5,200 can dramatically improve your health.
Counting your steps
Counting your daily steps is easier than ever. There are many step-counting apps you can download to your phone, or you can buy a pedometer, a device you wear on your waist or put in your pocket that measures steps. Devices such as Fitbit and other smartwatches can track your daily steps along with other metrics, such as heart rate and blood oxygen level.
Find the app or device that fits your budget and lifestyle. However, don’t spend less than $15 to $20 on a pedometer—devices less expensive than that aren’t likely to be accurate. Next, make a plan to get the optimal number of steps:
Step 1. Figure out how many steps you’re walking every day. To do that, use your step-counting device to track your steps every day for three days. If your device doesn’t store daily steps, use a written log, noting your daily step total at bedtime. Make sure to note the daily total before midnight, when your pedometer may automatically reset your step count to zero. Your total number of steps divided by three is your daily average.
Step 2. Set a goal. Perhaps you’d like to increase your count by 1,200 steps per day. Perhaps you’d like to reach 7,000 steps daily, or even 10,000.
Step 3. Decide how many steps you want to increase on a daily basis. You may want to add 100 more steps per day every week. If you started at 4,000 steps as your daily average, for example, you would walk 4,100 steps each day the first week, 4,200 steps each day the second week, etc. Try not to make big changes all at once, like increasing from 5,000 to 10,000 daily steps in one week. Small, incremental changes are the most likely to become habitual.
Step 4. Choose ways you’re going to increase your daily step count. Adding a daily walk is a great idea. A walk of 20 minutes at a moderate pace is about 2,000 steps. (2,000 steps = 1 mile.) You can also break that up into two shorter walks. Walking a dog is a great way to get more steps in. Along with the many other benefits of owning a dog, research shows that dog owners walk an average of 2,760 more steps per day than people who don’t own dogs. If you don’t want your own dog, you can volunteer to walk dogs at a local animal shelter.
There are also many “little” ways to increase your step count—and they add up:
- Walk while talking on your phone.
- Instead of driving, walk to a destination, like a store.
- If you drive, park farther away from your destination and walk the rest of the way.
- In a parking lot, park the farthest distance from the entrance.
- Avoid drive-throughs—get out of your car and walk inside.
- Empty wastebaskets every day.
Get social support
Walking with a family member or friend is a wonderful way to help motivate yourself to achieve your daily step goal. Similarly, devices such as Fitbit allow you to make friends or join a like-minded group on the Fitbit platform and report your daily steps. People who do so take about 700 more steps a day than people who don’t. Similar apps include www.socialstepsapp.com and www.verywellfit.com. There are also online walking communities on Facebook and other social media, such as the Pacer Pedometer and Walker Tracker pages on Facebook.
If you enjoy walking alone, try listening to your favorite music, podcast, or audiobook.