4,000 steps a day may reduce risk of dying of any cause
Insufficient physical activity is the fourth-leading risk for death across the world, accounting for around 3.2 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organisation. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Washington: Achieving 10,000 steps per day is a common fitness goal, but there's a lack of scientific evidence that it's the ideal number for everyone. Now, a new study has found that significant health benefits may begin with as few as 4,000 steps per day.

A team of scientists led by Maciej Banach, a professor of preventive cardiology at the Medical Academy of Lodz in Poland, analysed 17 studies that followed more than 200,000 people for an average of just over seven years.

The analysis showed that benefits began at around 2,300 steps per day, which was associated with a significant reduced risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. At around 4,000 steps, the risk of dying of any cause also began to fall significantly. Both figures - which represent medians - are under the 5,000-step limit for what the study notes is normally considered to be a sedentary lifestyle.

But there were benefits beyond these numbers: Every extra 1,000 steps was associated with a 15 per cent reduction in the risk of dying of any cause, while an increase of 500 steps per day was associated with a 7 per cent reduction in the risk of death of cardiovascular disease, the study said.

Banach, the study's lead author, said in a phone interview Wednesday that his findings weren't meant to undermine those with 10,000 steps as a goal but to offer hope to people who are struggling to reach that number.

"It is a very important message because I have had many patients that were simply discouraged" when he tried to persuade them to aim for between 7,000 and 10,000 steps per day, he said.

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The findings were published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Insufficient physical activity is the fourth-leading risk for death across the world, accounting for around 3.2 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organisation - which measures exercise requirements by time and intensity rather than steps. One study last year found that global physical activity levels - already below 10,000 steps per day on average across the world - had dropped after the Covid-19 outbreak and had not returned to pre-pandemic levels by February 2022.

Japanese marketing ploy

The advice to aim to walk 10,000 steps every day wasn't originally born out of scientific data but came from a Japanese marketing ploy that used a name that loosely translated as "10,000-step meter" to sell pedometers, as The Washington Post has previously reported.

But US guidelines on physical activities note that people still may choose goals such as walking 10,000 steps as a way to meet their exercise requirements.

Banach stressed that the review's findings aren't meant to encourage people to reduce their daily step count but to aim as high as possible - with the most notable benefits found between 7,000 and 13,000 steps per day for people under 60 and between 6,000 and 10,000 steps for older adults, according to the results.

"We noticed that for younger adults, this expected reduction of mortality was higher, even up to 50 per cent," he said.

Start as early as possible

The reasons for this probably were the result of a formula used elsewhere in medicine of "'the earlier, the better' and 'the longer on target, the better,'" according to Banach: Those who follow medical guidance on exercise and diet at a younger age are more likely to be within healthy cholesterol and blood pressure limits, and so "we might expect significantly larger health benefits."

"Thus, we should not only remember to have regular physical activities but also to start the earliest possible," he said.

The study determined that the benefits applied across different countries and genders. Banach says other studies are planned to look into the role of very intensive exercise, such as marathons or iron man races, as well as the impact of different step counts on specific illnesses, such as cancer or strokes.

But the main findings on the benefits of extra steps each day are clear, he says: "The more, the better."