We have all heard that we should be aiming to walk 10 000 steps per day to achieve health benefits, but how accurate is that goal for us all? Is it something we should be aiming for each and every day?
Postdoctoral Research Fellow Matthew Ahmadi, from the University of Sydney, says current evidence shows we can achieve significant health benefits by walking fewer than 10 000 steps. His research currently focuses on measurements of physical activities taken by wearable devices (like smart watches and phones), and using these measurements to assess the relationship between physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep, with non-communicable diseases throughout the life course.
Ahmadi says the most important goal to have is to move and be physically active as much as you can in your circumstances, because every movement counts. ‘There is no one size that fits all when it comes to walking and activity. Any activity is good activity. The person should do whatever they find most enjoyable – whether that’s going for a walk, going for a bike ride, doing group activities, or doing activities by yourself or at home activities,’ he tells Wellbeing by Teacher.
‘It isn’t necessarily, “you’ve got to hit 10 000 [steps] and if you don’t there’s no health benefits”,’ he explains. ‘It’s a gradual increase, whatever the person finds fun, they can do it, and that ultimately will give them more health benefits than not doing it.’
How walking positively impacts our physical and mental wellbeing
Walking is an extremely accessible method of physical exercise for the general population, and it has a range of physical and mental health benefits. It can benefit our physical health by improving our blood pressure, lipid regulation and glucose metabolism, all of which, in turn, lower our risk for cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
Research has also confirmed that walking can positively impact our mental health. ‘Walking, in particular, has a role in the management of mild to moderate depression and anxiety,’ Ahmadi explains.
‘Depression and anxiety are often co-occurring and are found to be more prevalent in people who are physically inactive, compared to those who are physically active.’
The 10 000 steps myth
The 10 000 steps per day goal originated back around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when it featured as part of a marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer. Because it’s a round, easy to remember number, it’s stuck with us for decades.
However, current research suggests the health benefits of walking tapers off at around the 7500 step mark for middle-age to older adults. For example, a 2019 study (Lee et al., 2019) on women with an average age of 72 found that those who accumulated on average about 4400 steps death per day had a 41 per cent lower risk of death compared to those who only accumulated 2700 steps per day. Health benefits increased up to around 7500 steps per day before levelling off.
Another study (Saint-Maurice et al., 2020) of both men and women, this time averaging 57 years old, found walking around 8000 steps per day significantly lowered the risk of death. And an even more recent study (Paluch et al., 2021) found that 7000 steps per day lowered the risk of death by 60 to 70 per cent in adults over the age of 40.
‘From all these studies we can conclude that the take home message is that some physical activity is better than none, more is better, and that the 10 000 step target … is not necessarily holding true when it comes to health benefits,’ Ahmadi says.
What impact does your walking speed have?
Ahmadi says current evidence shows the most important factor of your walking style is your total amount of steps, regardless of the intensity or the pace of your walk.
Research has also looked at whether walking each day is important, or whether adults known as ‘weekend warriors’ (in other words, they compress all of their physical activity into the weekend), still see health benefits. The answer is that yes, they do (O’Donovan et al., 2017).
‘So the ultimate target should be just hitting your activity goals across seven days, and not necessarily having to do them every day,’ Ahmadi explains. ‘However, the pattern you use ultimately comes down to a personal preference and what you find most easy and attainable for yourself. If that’s just doing it little by little each day, then that’s perfect, and if that’s doing it when you have free time on the weekends, that’s also perfect as well.’
Some ways you can achieve your walking goals across the week is walking to the bus or the train to get to work instead of driving; parking further away when you do your weekly food shop; and taking the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator as much as possible.
Lee, I. M., Shiroma, E. J., Kamada, M., Bassett, D. R., Matthews, C. E., & Buring, J. E. (2019). Association of step volume and intensity with all-cause mortality in older women. JAMA Internal Medicine, 179(8), 1105-1112.
O’Donovan, G., Lee, I. M., Hamer, M., & Stamatakis, E. (2017). Association of “weekend warrior” and other leisure time physical activity patterns with risks for all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine, 177(3), 335-342.
Paluch, A. E., Gabriel, K. P., Fulton, J. E., Lewis, C. E., Schreiner, P. J., Sternfeld, B., Sidney, S., Siddique, J., Whitaker, K. M., & Carnethon, M. R. (2021). Steps per Day and All-Cause Mortality in Middle-aged Adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study. JAMA Network Open, 4(9), e2124516-e2124516.
Saint-Maurice, P. F., Troiano, R. P., Bassett, D. R., Graubard, B. I., Carlson, S. A., Shiroma, E. J., Fulton, J. E., & Matthews, C. E. (2020). Association of daily step count and step intensity with mortality among US adults. JAMA, 323(12), 1151-1160.
Are you an educator working in a school setting? If so, are you interested in submitting an article for publication on Wellbeing by Teacher? We’d love to hear about how you care for your own wellbeing. Reach out to the team by emailing email@example.com with your story idea. We’ve also put together a handy guide to help you get started.