logoThe People's Perspective on Medicine

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?
Close-up Of Hand Holding Digital Pedometer On White Background

How many steps do you take a day? During the pandemic, stay-at-home orders might have made it 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. In addition, research shows that staying active can also help you live a longer, healthier life. Moreover, physical activity can reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation and stroke.

Step Count of at Least 7,000 Per Day Lowers Risk of Early Death:

We’ve been told for years that we need to take 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy. That goal was initially part of a Japanese pedometer maker’s promotional campaign. However, new research suggests that getting in at least 7,000 steps daily can help people live longer healthier lives.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open (Sept. 3, 2021), followed more than 2,000 middle aged adults who wore an accelerometer to measure their steps and walking speed between 2005 and 2006. Both men and women, Black and white, participated in the study, dubbed Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA).

During nearly 11 years of follow-up, 72 volunteers died. Those who managed at least 7,000 steps daily were at significantly lower risk of dying during the research time frame, with a relative risk reduction of about 70%. Counting steps is easy, either with an inexpensive pedometer or with a smartphone or watch.

The authors note that

“steps estimated from these devices could be a simple metric to track and promote physical activity.”

Set Your Own Goal and Aim to Win:

A separate study of 500 low-income individuals from around Philadelphia found that step counters can be very effective if used properly (JAMA Cardiology, Sept. 1, 2021). The investigators tested different ways of “gamifying” step goals. Volunteers who set their own goals and implemented them immediately increased their step counts significantly. They also boosted their moderate to vigorous physical activity. Even after the intervention, those in this group maintained higher levels of activity for the next two months of monitoring.

Higher Step Count Linked to Lower Mortality:

In earlier research, 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.

Keeping Heart and Brain Healthy by Staying Active:

A previous study utilized data from nearly 100,000 Britons in the UK Biobank (European Heart Journal, May 25, 2021). As the authors note, earlier studies of activity and heart rhythm were inconsistent; most utilized self-reports of exercise, which are not always reliable. All of the volunteers in this study wore wrist-based accelerometers for a week. Then researchers kept tabs on their health over the next five years. People whose accelerometers registered higher levels of physical activity were less likely to experience atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm problem that can lead to stroke. However, the relationship between the accelerometer measurements and self-reported activity was weak, and there was no significant association between self-reported activity and protection from AFib. That’s why an objective measure such as step count can be so helpful.

Losing Weight Step by Step:

Fitness trackers and simple step counters are popular ways to keep track of physical activity. Until recently, 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. 

Can You Boost Your Step Count?

During the pandemic, some municipalities had rules in place that kept people from going out for a walk. In most places, walks are now 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 as well.

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 at least 7,000 steps a day or more.

Rate this article
4.4- 175 ratings
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. .
  • Paluch A et al, "Steps per day and all-cause mortality in middle-aged adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study." JAMA Network Open, Sept. 3, 2021. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24516
  • Patel MS et al, "Effect of goal-setting approaches within a gamification intervention to increase physical activity among economically disadvantaged adults at elevated risk for major adverse cardiovascular events: The ENGAGE randomized clinical trial." JAMA Cardiology, Sept. 1, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2021.3176
  • Khurshid S et al, "Accelerometer-derived physical activity and risk of atrial fibrillation." European Heart Journal, May 25, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/ehab250
  • 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
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.