By Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C
Physical activity is essential for health, but you don’t have to be a competitive athlete to reap the benefits. Walking is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to stay healthy and happy.
Here is why walking is always a good idea and just how many steps can get you to your best health.
What are the Benefits of Walking?
It’s hard to find a reason not to lace up your sneakers after reading the following science-backed ways walking boosts your physical and mental health.
- Improves your heart health: A walking routine helps reduce hypertension, regulates blood sugar, and decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Makes you happier: The mood-boosting benefits of a walk are real. And research shows walking reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Boosts your brain power: Walking helps to improve cognitive function, creative thinking, focus, and productivity.
- Strengthens your bones and staves off pain: Walking impacts your bones, keeping them healthy and slowing age-related osteoporosis. It can reduce the nagging pain symptoms of osteoarthritis, making it easier to move around throughout your day.
- Aids in better sleep: Increasing your step count could lead to better zzz’s. And when you hit an afternoon energy slump, a walk may wake you up even more than a cup of coffee.
- Helps you live longer: You may be able to walk your way to a longer life, based on research studying physical activity levels and longevity.
How Many Steps Should I Take a Day?
The age-old goal of 10,000 steps a day is technically an arbitrary recommendation that a Japanese pedometer company marketed in the 1960s. While the number has stuck for decades, research has shown health benefits at various step counts. A study of over 16,000 women found those who took as few as 4,400 steps per day had a 41 percent lower premature mortality rate than those who took 2,700. The longevity benefits progressively increased with more steps before plateauing at around 7,500 steps per day. Similarly, a meta-analysis shows that adults over 60 may decrease their risk of a cardiovascular event by up to 50 percent when they consistently walk between 6,000 and 9,000 steps per day.
Another study found achieving higher daily step counts and even picking up the pace during your walk was associated with reduced risk of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), major depressive disorder, and sleep apnea–with benefits seeming to plateau above 8,000 and 9,000 steps per day. The sweet spot is nearly 10,000 steps daily, so the pedometer company wasn’t too far off. Yet another study including over 78,000 participants, found reaching up to 10,000 steps per day and higher step cadences may be associated with a lower risk of premature mortality, cancer, and cardiovascular disease incidence. Age may inform the upper thresholds of your goal step counts, with adults 60 years or older benefiting most with a goal of 6,000 to 8,000 steps and adults younger than 60 aiming for 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day.
Keep it up if you are easily hitting 10,000 steps a day or more. The goal is not to walk less to fit into a threshold, but to help you set realistic goals if you aren’t quite there yet. As with most health and fitness guidelines, adapting to physical activity is highly individualized, and customizing movement to fit your lifestyle will help you stick with it for a lifetime.
How Can I Increase My Steps?
The average American walks around 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day–far below some of the recommended thresholds for health benefits. But research shows any modest increase in steps over time can improve your health and may even add years to your life. Here are some tips to seamlessly add steps to your day.
- Get social: Get the whole family involved in regular walks or hikes to form lifelong physical activity habits. If you’re going to catch up with a friend on the phone, do it on the go.
- Schedule workday walks: Put reminders in your calendar to get up and walk around when you have long blocks of sitting time in your day. Blocking off 30 minutes for a daily walk can keep you focused throughout your day.
- Enjoy some tunes: Listening to your favorite music, a strong beat, or even a podcast or audiobook can make the activity more enjoyable and help motivate you to walk farther or faster (just be sure to stay aware of your surroundings).
- Rack up simple steps: You’ve heard of parking farther away from the grocery store and taking the stairs instead of the elevator–these insignificant daily decisions add up. Train your mind to take the “harder” route by reminding yourself you’re moving for your future self. After a while, these choices become second nature.
The bottom line: Walking boosts almost every aspect of your health and quality of life. Higher step counts are commonly associated with greater health and longevity benefits. However, hitting 10,000 steps a day may not be necessary–it’s about finding a step count that is reasonable and achievable for you and your lifestyle.