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Will Boosting Your Step Count Save Your Life?

A study of American adults shows that people who manage a step count of at least 8,000 a day have a lower chance of dying in the next decade.
Will Boosting Your Step Count Save Your Life?
Red pedometer studio isolated on white background

How many steps do you take a day? If you are under stay-at-home orders, it may be difficult to take a nice long walk and get your step count up. However, a systematic review shows that fitness trackers can help people shed pounds. Previous research showed that staying active can also help you live a longer, healthier life.

Losing Weight Step by Step:

Fitness trackers and simple step counters are popular ways to keep track of physical activity. Until now, scientists have been uncertain whether they help overweight people shed pounds. A new systematic review of 31 clinical trials concluded that step counters and accelerometers can help people meet their daily exercise goals (British Journal of Sports Medicine, March 17, 2021). In addition, they helped volunteers lose weight. People who used the step counters in combination with dietary counseling got the best results, reducing BMI by more than 3 points. The researchers suggest that using the devices consistently for at least three months is necessary. 

Higher Step Count Linked to Lower Mortality:

To check whether more activity contributes to longevity, scientists studied 4,840 volunteers in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) who were at least 40 years old (JAMA, March 24, 2020). Between 2003 and 2006 when they were recruited, the participants each wore an accelerometer for a week. These devices measured how many steps the people took and how rapidly they were walking.

The investigators hoped to learn whether they was any connection between step count and mortality. They also wondered whether walking speed would be related to survival. After collecting the initial data from the accelerometers, they tracked the volunteers until the end of 2015. They counted total deaths and deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Volunteers Stepped Out:

During the initial phase of the study, the volunteers racked up a mean of 9,124 steps daily. Of course, that mean is based on step counts ranging from less than 4,000 a day to more than 12,000 daily steps. During the following decade, 1,165 of the participants died.

The rates of death dropped with increasing step count. For those individuals who averaged less than 4,000 steps a day, the overall mortality rate was 76.7 per 1000 person-years. People who took between 4,000 and 7,999 steps daily had a mortality rate of 21.4 per 1000 person-years. Those who racked up a more impressive step count between 8,000 and 11,999 a day had a mortality rate of 6.9 per 1000 person-years. There were only 919 hardy souls who managed more than 12,000 steps daily, but their mortality rate was an enviable 4.8 per 1000 person-years. Although volunteers who walked more rapidly were less likely to die during the study than those who ambled slowly, the difference was not significant once the researchers factored the total step count.

The value of studying volunteers from NHANES is that they are representative of the American population. The investigators report that people who took 8,000 steps a day on average were 51 percent less likely to die during the follow-up period than the couch potatoes averaging less than 4,000.

Can You Boost Your Step Count?

The current situation that has so many of us staying in our homes may keep some people from going out for a walk. In most places now, walks are permitted so long as they don’t involve interacting at close range with other people. A nice long walk can also be a great way to clear your mind, reduce your anxiety and get a better night’s sleep at this time.

You don’t need a fancy accelerometer, especially since walking speed didn’t make as much difference as distance. A pedometer will count steps perfectly well. If you don’t have one sitting around, you could probably find one online. Most will tell you how far you have walked as well as giving you your daily step count. To get the most benefit, aim for 8,000 steps a day or more.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
Citations
  • McDonough DJ et al, "Health wearable devices for weight and BMI reduction in individuals with overweight/obesity and chronic comorbidities: systematic review and network meta-analysis." British Journal of Sports Medicine, March 17, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-103594
  • Saint-Maurice PF et al, "Association of daily step count and step intensity with mortality among US adults." JAMA, March 24, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.1382
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