Step it up

How many steps does it take to live longer? It’s quantity over quality

Every step counts in the race against death.

Originally Published: 
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If you’ve ever circled the apartment frantically looking for a lost phone, stumbled down the stairs to answer the door for a delivery, or checked on that houseplant at the end of the hall one too many times — give yourself a pat on the back. Those are all forms of exercise in the eyes of your step counter and steps, recent research suggests, are an underappreciated way to live longer.

With more ways than ever to count our steps available — Fitbits, phones, watches — researchers wanted to know the optimal step count per day for lowering the chance of death. Their findings confirm more steps are better for health and long life — and suggest that the quality steps may not be as important as the quantity.

But one mystery endures: exactly how many steps we need to take for the maximum payoff. While this study suggests gains seemed to taper off after only about 4,500 “sporadic” steps, other research suggests other numbers.

What’s new — A new study presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference in May found older white women who walked more lived longer.

In the case of this study, the kind of steps didn’t seem to matter: Women who took more steps decreased their risk of mortality, regardless of whether those steps were via long, planned walks — the sort of walks we might typically categorize of as “exercise” — or short bursts, like from walking around the house.

Christopher Moore is the lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “If you like to go on longer walks, or go for a walk on the treadmill, that has benefits,” he tells Inverse. “But also, if you want to find ways to increase steps and accumulate them sporadically throughout the day, that also will provide benefits.”

Walking sporadically had a big impact on the “hazard ratio,” or risk, of mortality up until about 4,500 steps.

Moore, et al.

How the discovery was made — The researchers examined data associated with 16,732 women who were part of a different study, which tracked them from 2011 to 2015. The women, who were an average of 72 years old, wore a hip device to measure their steps for seven days. Moore and colleagues followed up with them in 2019 to see if any women had died.

In general, for every 1,000 steps more the women walked throughout the course of their day, the more they decreased their chances of dying. The women walked an average of 5,452 steps a day, which were a mix of walking types:

  • 80 percent of those steps were “sporadic” — steps in short bursts.
  • The rest were long walks or “bouts” of 10 or more minutes.

Those longer “bouts” of continuous walking improved the women’s chances of having a longer life. But there is a catch: While more walking always associated with health gains, these gains stopped growing after roughly 4,500 “sporadic” steps.

In other words, longer bouts of walking provided some benefits for living a longer life, but the most dramatic gains in longevity happened by simply being more active in short bursts.

Why it matters — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s exercise guidelines tell Americans they need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week, or about 20 minutes a day. In 2008, the guidelines specified that aerobic physical activity had to be in 10-minute episodes or longer but they were updated in 2018 to reflect a growing understanding that shorter bursts of exercise count too.

Findings like Moore’s suggest continuous exercise, or at least continuous steps, don’t necessarily have an advantage over exercise spread out over the day like picking up around the house, watering plants, walking to your parked car, and so on.

That’s as long as they add up to enough steps overall. But that’s where the directive “walk this much per day” gets fuzzier.

More types of exercise provide benefits than you might think.

Getty / Image Source

What we don’t know — Other research that’s attempted to arrive at that magic number of steps for long life hasn’t been decisive. Sometimes that’s because of variation in the population that’s being observed and other times it’s due to the way steps are counted.

For example, in one study from 2020 researchers looked at 4,840 participants and measured their steps over about 6 days in a long-term study. But these participants took an average of many more steps per day and were, on average, much younger than in Moore’s. They were also made up of different sexes and races, not just predominantly white females.

Researchers found that compared to taking 4,000 steps a day, walkers who took 8,000 steps saw a significant relative decrease in their risk of mortality. This suggests that the health benefits don’t necessarily taper off with fewer steps. According to Moore, the devices used in this study were also more sensitive to movement than those used in his, possibly explaining why they yielded more steps across the board.

But even a review of many studies that tied step count to mortality and various diseases found that, based on data from over 30,000 people, it still wasn’t clear that there was a “minimum threshold” of steps needed to get the maximum health benefits of walking — although they did note that up until 10,000 steps a day, there were still benefits with increased steps.

Taken as a whole, it appears as if you really can’t walk too much — and it doesn’t have to be a planned weekly half-hour walk, either. Forgetting your keys at work will do just fine.

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