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Steps per day are important in middle age, but not as much as you might think

By walking at least 7,000 steps a day, middle-aged people reduced their risk of premature death from all causes by 50% to 70%, compared to other middle-aged people who took fewer daily steps. But walking more than 10,000 steps a day — or walking faster — didn't further reduce the risk, notes lead author Amanda Paluch, a physical activity epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The findings highlight evolving efforts to establish evidence-based guidelines for simple, accessible physical activity that benefits health and longevity, such as walking. The oft-recommended 10,000 steps per day is not a scientifically established guideline, but emerged as part of a decades-old marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer, says Paluch, assistant professor of kinesiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences.

A question Paluch and colleagues wanted to answer:How many steps per day do we need for health benefits? “That would be great to know for a public health message or for doctor-patient communication,” she says.

The researchers collected data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which began in 1985 and is still ongoing. About 2,100 participants between the ages of 38 and 50 wore a pedometer in 2005 or 2006. They were followed for almost 11 years afterwards and the resulting data was analyzed in 2020 and 2021.

The participants were divided into three comparison groups:low step volume (less than 7,000 per day), moderate (between 7,000-9,999) and high (more than 10,000).

“You see this gradual risk reduction in mortality as you take more steps,” Paluch says. “There were substantial health benefits between 7,000 and 10,000 steps, but we didn't see any additional benefit from going beyond 10,000 steps.

“For people with 4,000 steps, it makes sense to get to 5,000,” she adds. “And from 5,000 to 6,000 steps there is an increasing risk reduction of all-cause mortality to about 10,000 steps.”

Several features make this study particularly interesting and informative. First, it involved middle-aged people, while most step studies focused on older adults. So the findings may point to ways to keep people healthy for longer and prevent premature death, as some participants have experienced.

“Preventing those deaths before average life expectancy — that's a big problem,” Paluch says. “Proving that steps per day can be associated with premature death is a new contribution to the field.”

The study also included an equal number of men and women and black and white participants. The death rates for people walking at least 7,000 steps a day were lowest among women and blacks, compared to their more sedentary peers. But there was a limited sample of people who died, and Paluch warns that researchers need to study larger, diverse populations to measure statistically significant sex and race differences.

Paluch is eager to continue exploring the impact of steps per day on health and how walking can be beneficial in different ways at different stages of life.

“We looked at just one outcome here — all-cause deaths,” she says. “The association may look different depending on the outcome of your interest.”