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Even One Extra Walk a Day May Make a Big Difference

How many steps should people take every day for good health?

A new study of activity and mortality in older women finds that the total could be lower than many of us expect and that even small increases in steps can be meaningful. The study also side-eyes the validity, utility and origin of the common 10,000-step-a-day exercise goals built into so many of our phones and activity monitors and suggests, instead, that any moving, whether or not it counts as exercise, may help to extend people’s lives.

By now, almost all of us know that walking and other types of physical activity are indispensable to our well-being. Studies show that active people have lower incidences of heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes and usually live longer than people who are sedentary. But many of us remain confused about just how much exercise we need and how intense it should be.

But some scientists have begun to suspect that telling people to measure their workouts in minutes may not be ideal and few past studies have correlated steps and health, largely because such research requires people to wear activity monitors and not just tell researchers how often they exercise.

So, for the new study, which was published last week, the doctors set out to objectively quantify how many steps might be needed to avoid premature mortality.

Many of us likely assume that the answer is 10,000, since so many of our activity monitors use that threshold as a goal. But no scientific evidence supports that idea, doctors says. The concept of 10,000 steps seems to have originated, in fact, with a Japanese clock maker in the 1960s, she says. It gave its consumer pedometer a Japanese name that translates as “10,000 steps,” and somehow that ideal took hold. (Some past research suggests that we might need to take more than 10,000 steps to protect ourselves against heart disease.)

Now, the doctors began trolling through the massive data from the Women’s Health Study, which has been tracking the health and habits of older women for decades.

As part of that study, thousands of older women had worn a sophisticated activity monitor for a week. It tracked the steps each woman took per minute throughout the day.

The women also provided information to the researchers about their overall health and lifestyles.

“We were quite surprised that such a relatively small number of steps would be associated with such a substantial reduction in mortality,” doctors say.

The data also indicated that few of the women walked intensively; for the most part, they strolled, rather than rushed. Few walked for exercise. But intensity did not matter in this study. Only the number of steps per day was associated with mortality, not the speed with which the women accumulated them.

Even so, the findings suggest that step counts can be a useful way to measure exercise and that taking more steps is better than taking fewer.

 

Lara Khouli

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