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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.

How many steps do you take a day? You may have heard that you should be taking 10,000 steps a day. Initially, that ideal step count was not based on evidence, but rather was a marketing maneuver. However, subsequent research has shown that paying attention to your step count can make a difference for your health. One systematic review showed 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.

Take the Stairs for a Healthier Heart:

Although half of American adults don’t get the recommended amount of exercise, researchers say there’s a simple way to change that. A meta-analysis of nine studies showed that people who choose the stairs instead of the elevator lower their chance of dying from heart disease compared to elevator riders. They are also less likely to suffer strokes or heart attacks (European Society of Cardiology Preventive Cardiology 2024, Barcelona, April 25, 2024).

The research included data on about 480,000 individuals. Scientists from the University of East Anglia presented their data at the European Society of Cardiology Preventive Cardiology 2024 Congress. They pointed out that even short bouts of stair climbing can improve cardiovascular fitness and increase muscle strength at the same time. Stair climbers were 24% less likely to die during the study time frame compared to those who did not climb. When the investigators considered cardiovascular disease and mortality, climbing stairs reduced the odds by about 39%.

While any exercise is better than none, researchers encourage people to incorporate taking the stairs into their day. If you count steps with a fitness tracker on your wrist, you can probably use it to count flights climbed, too. Aiming for six to ten flights a day should provide plenty of benefit.

What Step Count Adds Up to Good Health?

Have you heard that you need to try to take 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy and ward off premature death? That goal was initially part of a Japanese pedometer maker’s promotional campaign. So far as we can tell, it wasn’t based on scientific research. Now though, we have evidence that boosting your step count to around 8,000 a day can be helpful.

A study followed more than 3,000 American adults for ten years (JAMA Network Open, March 28, 2023). They all wore an accelerometer tracking their activity for a week at the beginning of the study. One-fifth of the participants did not achieve 8,000 steps on any day during that week; about 17 percent managed to get at least that many steps on one or two days; and the remaining 62 percent took at least 8,000 steps three or more days during the week.

8,000 Steps Ward Off the Grim Reaper:

Those in the latter group were 16.5 percent less likely to die during the subsequent ten years than those who never got up to 8,000 steps. Even those who only logged 8,000 steps on one or two days benefited. They were 15 percent less likely to die than the couch potatoes. The authors conclude that “individuals may receive substantial health benefits by walking just a couple days a week.”

Previous Research Endorses Step Count:

This is not the first study to find lower mortality linked to higher step count. Devices like pedometers and accelerometers such as FitBits or Apple watches make it easy to count your steps. A research group aptly termed The Steps for Health Collaborative looked at the research behind step count recommendations. The authors analyzed 15 studies with more than 47,000 participants (Lancet Public Health, March 2022).

Their findings:

“Taking more steps per day was associated with a progressively lower risk of all-cause mortality, up to a level that varied by age.”

That was 6 to 8 thousand daily steps for people over 60 and 8 to 10 thousand for those under 60. So the Japanese marketers were not so far off after all, at least for younger adults.

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

All these findings about a healthy step count agree with those from an earlier study. That research suggested that getting in at least 7,000 steps daily can help middle-aged 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 urban areas. With restrictions lifted, walks are back on the table. 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. Climbing stairs can even help you fight fatigue.

How Does Walking Up Stairs Affect Your Energy Level?

Researchers at the University of Georgia compared stair climbing to 50 mg of caffeine (Randolph & O’Connor, Physiology & Behavior, online, March 14, 2017). That is about how much caffeine you find in a can of soda; people frequently drink soda to combat fatigue.

The study volunteers were 18 college women who were chronically sleep deprived. They took either caffeine or placebo in pill form. Then they answered questions about their feelings of alertness or fatigue.

Climbing Stairs Was More Energizing Than Caffeine:

When the subjects spent 10 minutes walking up and down stairs, the young women experienced an improvement in energy that was greater than that produced by 50 mg of caffeine.

Ideally, of course, these students would find ways to get more sleep. That would be the best way to counteract their fatigue. People can’t always sleep more, though, whether because they don’t have enough time or because they have insomnia. If you have trouble falling asleep, you may be interested in our Guide to Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.

Tracking Your Own Step Count:

You don’t need a fancy accelerometer, especially since walking speed doesn’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 for younger people.

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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..
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