How Many Steps Do You Really Need to Walk Each Day to Live Longer?
Learn what the research really says about step counts and your health. Plus, advice from a doctor on activity and longevity.
At some point since the turn of the century, you’ve probably seen a headline or two suggesting 10,000 steps per day can help improve your health. Maybe you even have a smartwatch or app that tracks your daily step count to help you reach this goal. But if you aren’t active, or your days include a long commute or hours at a desk, trying to achieve 10,000 steps may feel insurmountable.
Here’s the good news: There are incredible health benefits from walking fewer than 10,000 steps per day. In fact, as few as 4,000 steps per day may enhance longevity if you were previously walking less than that.
As more research accumulates, it’s clear the goal for long-term health is to remain active, not necessarily to accumulate 10,000 steps. Here’s what the research says.
(Related: The Awesome Health Benefits of Awe Walking)
There are benefits to walking 10,000 steps per day
To a point, the health benefits of all-purpose walking (not just exercise, but the accumulation of steps taken throughout the day) increase as the number of daily steps increases.
There are scores of studies pointing to this benefit. For instance, a 2006 study in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that a 10,000 steps per day prescription to previously sedentary, overweight adults resulted in weight loss for the 36-week intervention.
Likewise, a 2018 review and meta-analysis in Hypertension found an inverse relationship between steps per day and arterial stiffness (a predictor of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality), with those living a “highly active lifestyle” and accumulating more than 10,000 steps per day enjoying the greatest benefit.
Benefits depend on the individual and goal
In looking at studies like these, one mistake some people make is to assume the results apply to every group of people. For instance, a study on “older adults” can’t necessarily predict results for a younger population. Or a study on men can’t necessarily predict results for women. One clear example of this is a 2011 study in Osteoporosis International on the effect of daily steps and bone mineral density, a sign of potential bone loss and osteoporosis.
The study found that bone density index—an index of weight-bearing load on the bones (an effect that happens during walking) could predict bone mineral density in women, but not in men. And the impact of steps per day on bone mineral density in women was significantly associated with the bodyweight of each woman in the study. This means that for the “average weight” woman in the study, a little fewer than 5,000 steps per day at a rate of 1 meter per second was associated with a good bone mineral density score. But for lighter-weight women? The results weren’t the same. A woman who weighed 20 percent less than the average weight (the average weight wasn’t provided) would have to walk more than 18,000 steps per day at the same rate to experience the same bone mineral density results. Or, conversely, she would have to walk 10,000 steps at a more brisk pace of 1.32 meters per second to experience the same results.
Another study in Age and Ageing looked at steps taken per day and the risk of depressive symptoms in older adults. Researchers found that individuals who took more then 3,500 steps per day experienced “protective benefits” with greater benefits seen at the 7,000 steps per day cutoff. But it’s unclear whether these same benefits could extend to a younger population. It’s also important to note that 3,500 steps per day is significantly easier to attain than 7,000 or 10,000, and there are still benefits at these lower values for some people.
What are the factors to consider?
These studies illustrate how the benefits experienced by one person won’t necessarily be the same as those experienced by another, based on individual differences including goal, age, sex, and body weight. While researchers can use averages and run statistics to make generally accepted conclusions, it’s important to remember that no one person is the same as another. So take results from an individual with a grain of salt. It’s the body of research as a whole that matters, and that can take decades to develop sufficiently.
(Related: 14 Benefits of Walking for Just 15 Minutes)
Studies define ‘benefits’ differently
Another thing to keep in mind is that different researchers define study parameters differently. So, where one study might look at the benefits around cutoff points of 5,000 steps or 7,000 steps, others might look at benefits at 10,000 or 12,000 steps. Just because one study finds greater health benefits for those who walk 10,000 steps per day than those who don’t, that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant benefits seen at greater or fewer steps.
For instance, in a September 2021 study in JAMA Network Open, researchers looked at all-cause death rates over 10 years. Those who averaged fewer than 7,000 steps per day were significantly less likely to die in the 10-year period than those who attained “moderate” or “high” levels of activity, defined as greater than 7,000 steps per day and 10,000 steps per day, respectively. The catch, of course, is that researchers could just have easily set the parameters for low and high activity at less than 5,000 steps, and more than 8,000 steps, which presumably would have created similar results.
And yet, another study published in 2021 in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing looked at the risk of cardiovascular disease in rural residents based on physical activity. Researchers established the cutoff points at less than 5,000 steps per day, 5,000 to 7,499 steps per day, and more than 7,500 steps per day. Again, there was some level of benefit associated with each progressive category, but only the “physically active” participants accruing more than 7,500 steps per day saw a “significantly” lower rate of disease risk. The takeaway here is that more steps tend to be better, and there’s evidence pointing to roughly 7,000 to 8,000 steps per day as a marker for significant health benefits. Still, there’s no way to say, definitively, that “X number of steps a day is the way to extend your life.”
Here’s how to interpret the research to reap the benefits
So, how many steps should you walk per day? The real takeaway is that walking is a generally accessible form of physical activity that most people can pursue, and more daily walking is associated with greater health benefits.
“Daily steps have a whole host of health benefits, like lowering the risk of high blood pressure or high cholesterol, strengthening your bones and muscles, burning calories, and elevating your mood,” says Pouya Shafipour, MD, a board-certified physician with Paloma Health. “The number of steps accumulated is more important than the intensity of the steps taken. Really, anything is better than sitting as it relates to the longevity of life.”
Any exercise helps
Dr. Shafipour emphasizes that while steps are an “easy” way to rack up physical activity, they’re not the only way. Don’t think of them as the “be all, end all” of exercise. If, for instance, you’re spending time biking, lifting weights, swimming, rowing, or doing other “non-exercise” activities like gardening or horseback riding, that time is still time you’re not spending sedentary, and less time spent sedentary is the real goal.
“I recommend moving your body for 30 minutes a day to improve your health, even if you’re limited in mobility,” he says. “There’s something to be said about habit building. Exercise is medicine and I recommend little bits dosed frequently.”
How to start walking for exercise
If you want to start walking more, Dr. Shafipour recommends shooting for fewer steps per day to help you stick with the habit, instead of aiming for 10,000 or more right off the bat and burning out. “More isn’t always better when sustainable health is the goal,” he says. So if you’re currently inactive and you’re trying to develop a habit, start by tracking your daily steps for about a week without trying to attain a specific goal. This is your baseline. Then, try to increase your daily average each week by 500 steps.
So if you start with an average around 4,000 steps, next week try to hit 4,500 steps per day, and the following week try to hit 5,000. Since many of the step-related health benefits appear to become more significant around 7,000 to 8,000 steps, aim to reach those parameters over time and see how you feel.
If your life doesn’t allow for more daily activity, you can feel good knowing you’ve increased your count from your baseline and that your day-to-day life is more active.