The Health Benefits of Walking and Higher Step Counts

Lisa Fields
by Lisa Fields
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The Health Benefits of Walking and Higher Step Counts

You may have heard walking 10,000 steps per day is the holy grail. While it’s a great goal, especially if you’ve been sedentary, it’s actually an arbitrary number that isn’t right for everyone. Some people may be able to surpass 10,000 steps easily. Others may feel intimidated by the number and decide not to make an effort if they feel like it’s unattainable.

Research shows health benefits to increasing your step count, even if you’re walking fewer than 10,000 steps per day.

THE PROBLEM WITH BEING SEDENTARY

It can be easy for people who drive to work (or work from home) and sit at a desk most of the day to fall into sedentary habits, defined by less than 5,000 steps per day. In fact, the average American walks just 1.5–2 miles (or roughly 3,500–4,000 steps) a day. When you’re sedentary for long periods, it can lead to health issues such as an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.

HEALTH BENEFITS OF HIGHER STEP COUNTS

When you walk more than 5,000 steps per day, the health benefits increase. A review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity analyzed 17 previously published studies about step counts, heart disease and causes of death. The average study participant walked about 6,000 steps per day. Researchers found walking 1,000 additional steps per day lowered the risk of premature death from heart disease, stroke and all other causes.

Other research similarly found taking more steps per day lowers your risk of dying of any cause, regardless of your age, gender and race. The study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed people who increased their step count from 4,000 to 8,000 steps per day had a 51% lower risk of death from all causes. When they walked 12,000 steps per day, their risk of death from all causes was 65% lower than those who only walked 4,000 steps.

Walking too few steps per day may also cause exercise resistance, meaning you may not burn fat efficiently, according to a recent study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. The research showed people who took 5,000 or fewer steps per day experienced exercise resistance, whereas those who took 8,500 steps did not, suggesting walking 8,500 steps per day is health-protective.

“Exercise resistance had a negative impact on triglyceride levels,” says study author Edward Coyle, PhD, a professor of kinesiology and health education and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. This could negatively influence long-term heart health, but further research is needed, he says.

DOES INTENSITY MATTER?

The people who had the greatest number of steps per day tended to walk with higher intensity, but you don’t have to be a fast walker to lower your risk of death from all causes, according to the study — you just have to log the steps.

“We found the total number of steps one takes is important, and that stepping at a higher intensity, or steps per minute, was not associated with additional mortality benefits,” says Pedro Saint-Maurice, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute and one of the study authors.

That said, if you’re looking to increase your calorie burn, including short, high-intensity intervals is one of the best ways to do that.

CAN YOU WALK TOO MUCH?

The same study also found walking more than 12,000 steps per day didn’t reduce the risk of premature death. “Our study examined step counts per day up to about 16,000 steps per day,” says another study author, Charles Matthews, PhD, a senior investigator with the metabolic epidemiology branch of the NCI’s division of cancer epidemiology and genetics. “From this data, we didn’t observe substantial additional benefits above 12,000 steps per day.”

Still, there might be other physical and mental benefits from walking more, including supporting weight loss, crossing off a big goal like walking a half-marathon or finding community and giving back by joining a virtual charity walk.

HOW TO INCREASE YOUR STEP COUNT

To improve your fitness and keep up a walking routine, here are some smart tips for increasing your step count:

  • Build slowly. Adding 1,000 steps per day may seem more manageable than adding 5,000 steps. “Increas[ing] your amount of physical activity or steps over a longer period of time reduces the risk of injury and makes it easier to create lasting behavior change,” says Chris Gagliardi, a certified personal trainer. “Set an initial time-related goal of adding 5 minutes of total walking time per day, which would lead to a 1,000-step increase per day. [Then], slowly add more time and more steps.”
  • Include both short and long walks. Scheduling one long daily walk may help you increase your step count, especially if you pair it with a series of shorter walks. “Adding in mini-walks can be another great way to add in steps — maybe a walk around the block before work, during your lunch break or after dinner. Those small, extra walks will really add up,” says Caryn Campanelli, a certified personal trainer.
  • Be active when you aren’t walking. Make an effort to move more throughout your day. “Most people have heard the recommendation to park further away in a parking lot or to take the stairs,” Gagliardi says. “Bouts of activity like these, even though they are short, do add to your total step count and lead to the health benefits associated with the total daily volume.” Ticking things off your to-do list such as organizing your kitchengrocery shopping, yard work and other chores also helps you accumulate more steps, says Saint-Maurice.

To become more active, try setting a simple goal to increase (and track) your daily steps. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app and choose a 28-day step plan to learn tips to boost your activity.

About the Author

Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields

Lisa Fields is a full-time freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition, fitness and psychology topics. Her work has been published in Reader’s Digest, WebMD, Women’s Health, Shape, Self and many other publications. A former lifeguard, Lisa swims regularly to stay in shape.You can read more of her work at http://www.writtenbylisafields.com/.

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