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Health & Wellness

Can't Hit 10,000 Steps a Day? Less Than Half That May Help Extend Your Life

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Take 10,000 steps a day to boost your health – it’s an adage we’ve long heard. On some fitness apps and pedometers, 10,000 steps, which is equivalent to about five miles for most people, is the default setting.

That can be an intimidating goal for many seniors. Some of us, discouraged by falling short of this target, may even decide to skip making walking a habit.

Now, a new study, focused on older women, offers fresh encouragement to put on your sneakers and hit the street, or hiking trail. Research conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston suggests that taking less than half of those 10,000 steps may help you live longer.

It turns out, as I-Min Lee, ScD, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, discovered, the 10,000-steps rule may not be based on medicine at all. Rather, it seems to have originated with a marketing plan by a Japanese company that introduced a pedometer back in the 1960s.

Lee and her colleagues decided to undertake a study that would provide a more science-driven look at the relationship between steps and health. For their study, nearly 17,000 women between the ages of 62 and 101 – most were in their 70s – were given activity monitors that tracked their movement over seven days. The researchers then followed up with the women four years later.

The findings: the women who were most inactive, walking only about 2,700 steps a day, were most likely to have died during the follow-up period. Taking just 4,400 steps a day was related to a 40 percent lower risk of death. That risk continued to decrease with the more steps taken, until leveling out at about 7,500 daily steps.

Anthony Kouri, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center in Ohio, regularly discusses the importance of physical activity for sustained health with his senior patients. He says he’s especially eager to share a secondary finding of the study: the intensity with which women in the study walked – how fast or slow – didn’t seem to matter. Walk at a fast pace or stroll leisurely, the study suggests, and you may still improve your health.

“The importance of this,” Kouri says, “is that seniors don’t need to go to the gym or jump on the treadmill to benefit from their steps. Simply getting out of the chair and moving around the house has the same effect.”

“The average American,” he continues, “walks 2,500 to 4,000 steps per day doing routine activities. While many seniors are less active than younger people, simply doing things around the house, such as getting the mail, cleaning, walking around the garden, playing with your dog, and other similar activities may reduce overall mortality risk.”

It’s best, Kouri adds, to spread your activity throughout the day to avoid being stationary for any significant period of time. “As a rule of thumb,” he says, “getting up and moving every half hour or so will keep you sufficiently active and help reduce mortality.”

Kouri points out that while the study was limited to elderly women, its findings can likely be extended to older men as well. “The results,” he says, “probably don’t apply to younger individuals, who likely do benefit from more steps and intensity. Further research needs to be done for younger people.”

Lee agrees that more research is necessary.  "Of course, no single study stands alone,” she's said.  “But our work continues to make the case for the importance of physical activity. Clearly, even a modest number of steps was related to lower mortality rate among these older women. We hope these findings provide encouragement for individuals for whom 10,000 steps a day may seem unattainable." The bottom line, as Lee told the Harvard Health Blog, is “Every step counts.”

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