We’ve been walking toward 10,000 steps since we clipped on our first step counter, but do we need that many steps a day to be healthy? It turns out the sweet spot may be closer to 7,000 steps.
A recent study found that people who take at least 7,000 steps each day are at lower risk of early death than those who take fewer steps each day. People who took 10,000 or more steps a day didn’t experience a further risk reduction in early death, the study authors note.
“There used to be this notion of 10,000 steps a day that a lot of people have heard about, but that came from one of the earliest makers of a pedometer or step counter; they used it as a marketing strategy,” says Dr. Cindy Lin, a clinical associate professor of Sports & Spine Medicine in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the UW School of Medicine and associate director of clinical innovation for The Sports Institute at UW Medicine.
Why getting more steps (but not too many) matters
Ten thousand steps a day is a lot, especially for busy people who work full-time. Seven thousand steps is more reasonable but still may seem out of reach for some.
The key takeaway from the study — and according to Lin — is that incorporating movement into your day is important, even if you’re starting small.
The 2,110 study participants were middle-aged Black and white women and men, but the findings are applicable beyond those demographics. The study found that the number of steps mattered more than how fast someone walked.
“It depends on where you’re starting from. If you’re only walking 3,000 steps a day, even walking 4,000 or 5,000 is a good thing for your heart health and for how you’re feeling,” Lin explains.
In fact, another recent study found that people who do just 2.6 to 4.5 hours of leisure-time sport activities per week (such as cycling, jogging, swimming or weightlifting) had the lowest risk of mortality.
How to add more movement to your day
Whether you already reach close to 7,000 steps each day or you’re starting from a much lower number, here are some easy ways to add more movement to your day (and actually enjoy it).
Track your current step count
“Most people have no idea how many steps they take on average. A lot of people are sitting most of their day in Zoom meetings or working from home, and they’re not getting up very often,” Lin says.
To rectify this, use the free step-tracking app on your phone (or download one) or use a fitness tracking device to start regularly monitoring how many steps you take each day.
Try not to feel bad if your number is small; the goal is to get information and understand what level of steps you’re starting at so you can build from your baseline in a realistic, sustainable way.
Increase your step count gradually
So you started tracking your steps and found out you get closer to 3,000 a day than 7,000. Does that mean you should start trying to get 7,000 now?
Not necessarily. While the goal may be to eventually build up to 7,000 steps a day, starting smaller may be more realistic in the short term.
Instead of setting 7,000 as your goal, try telling yourself that you just need to get in more steps each day than your current average. So, if your current average is 3,000, try to start getting 3,500. After you do that, try getting 4,000 — and so on.
This strategy will make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal while still giving you the health benefits of extra steps.
Focus on moving more, sitting less
If you’re super busy with work and child care and other life responsibilities, don’t despair if you can’t fit an hour-long walk into your daily routine.
Focus on finding small ways to add more movement to your day and eliminating some time spent sitting. Try taking that Zoom meeting during a walk around your home, watching your favorite TV show while walking on a treadmill, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting a standing desk setup and working while using a stepper, or any other small change you can make that helps you spend more time moving.
Move in ways you enjoy
If you don’t like running or walking fast, this may not be the activity for you. Forcing yourself to exercise in a way that doesn’t feel good is setting yourself up for failure, because you’re less likely to push yourself to do something you don’t enjoy.
“Make physical activity a routine so you feel like something is missing in your day or week when you don’t do it,” Lin recommends.
Take fitness snacking breaks
If you can’t fit a full workout into your day, another strategy for still getting some movement is to take a short exercise break whenever you can. This is a technique called exercise snacking.
This could look like taking a brisk 15-minute walk before lunch or jogging up a few flights of stairs between meetings. Committing to exercise snacks each day adds up and can make a difference in your overall fitness and health.
Barbara Clements contributed to this article.