Quirks & Quarks

Walking 10K steps a day is a health sweet spot, study finds — and walking faster is even better

In recent years, walking 10,000 steps a day has become a popular fitness goal, but until now, there hasn’t been much scientific research to back that number. A new study looking at people wearing fitness trackers has finally determined that it is indeed a sweet spot for a range of health outcomes, but how fast you walk is also important.

Walking can reduce risks of dementia, cancer and heart disease — and any number of steps is better than none

By studying people wearing fitness trackers, researchers have determined that walking 10,000 steps each day is indeed a 'sweet spot' for a range of health outcomes, but how fast you walk could be just as important. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

In recent years, walking 10,000 steps a day has become a popular fitness goal, but until now, there wasn't much scientific research to back that number.

A number of studies have shown that physical exercise can improve health and provide anti-aging benefits, but few have looked at exactly how many steps people should walk per day to optimize those benefits.

Now, scientists have determined that the big round number of 10,000 steps is indeed a great goal for a range of health outcomes, but how fast you walk could be just as important. 

Scientists from the University of Sydney and the University of Southern Denmark studied 78,500 adults in the U.K. between 2013 and 2015.

They wore activity trackers 24 hours a day for one week, which recorded how many steps they walked as well as the pace at which they walked. Researchers looked at their health outcomes seven years later.

They found that walking 10,000 steps a day lowers the risk of dementia by about 50 per cent, the risk of cancer by about 30 per cent and the risk of cardiovascular disease by about 75 per cent.

The study notes that the findings are "observational, meaning they cannot show direct cause and effect." But it stressed the "strong and consistent associations seen across both studies at the population level."

The participants consented to provide researchers their health records, including inpatient hospital registries, primary care records and cancer and death registries.

The data was collected as part of the largest study tracking step counts in the world in relation to health outcomes.

Their work was published earlier this month in the journals JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology.

Fitness trackers often encourage users to walk 10,000 steps a day, but until now, there wasn't much scientific research to back that number. (Getty Images)

Borja del Pozo Cruz, one of the lead researchers on the study, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that the 10,000-step goal actually originated from a 1960s Japanese marketing campaign aimed at selling pedometers. 

The pedometer, produced by the company Yamasa, was called the manpo-kei, which translates literally into "10,000 step metre."

At the time there was no scientific research to back that number and little had been done since, largely because it was difficult to gather precise data before digital activity trackers exploded in popularity.

Del Pozo Cruz, who is also a senior researcher in health sciences at the University of Cadiz in Spain and an adjunct professor at Southern Denmark University, said he and his team were surprised that the 10,000-step mark seemed to be the sweet spot for better health outcomes. 

But the study also found that you don't have to walk the full 10,000 steps a day to get significant health benefits.

"I guess for me at least, the most important finding was that on the very first step, the benefits are there," del Pozo Cruz said.

Results showed that every 2,000 steps walked lowered the risk of premature death incrementally by eight to 11 per cent, up to approximately 10,000 steps a day. The study found that beyond 10,000 steps, health outcomes plateaued.

"For some people, this [10,000] figure might be unrealistic," said del Pozo Cruz. "The important bit is that every step counts. Just get out there and do it, because anything is better than nothing."

Previous studies have touted the benefits of walking, including one in 2019 that found walking as little as 2,000 steps a day could lower mortality rates.

But del Pozo Cruz says that while these studies have focused on mortality rates, his team's study is the first to examine the link between walking and health outcomes like cancer, dementia and cardiovascular diseases.

Faster is better

The study also found that walking at a faster pace was associated with further benefits for all outcomes they measured.

For example, del Pozo Cruz said walking 10,000 steps a day cuts the risk of dementia by 50 per cent — but walking at a faster pace can add an extra 10 to 15 per cent reduction in risk. 

"How fast you walk is as important, if not more important, than how much you walk," he said. "For even more optimal health you would go about doing 10,000 steps and perhaps 30 minutes of those at a faster pace."

Del Pozo Cruz said that very high step counts — in the range of 20,000 steps and beyond — may actually decrease health benefits.

He added that his team hopes to soon replicate the study in more diverse populations, as the current data set was composed of mainly white, healthy, well-educated individuals between 40 and 79 years old. 

Produced and written by Maya Lach-Aidelbaum. 


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