Doing 10,000 steps a day is good, but study shows walking fast is better
Quibbles over the optimal daily step count for our health have come full circle, with the largest study to date on the subject suggesting that 10,000 a day is indeed the magic number. But, the way we move may be of equal importance, the researchers found.
The increasing focus on pinpointing the sweet spot of steps has happened in lockstep with the growing popularity of fitness trackers and the ability of our phones to record our movements.
If you want to increase the benefits of walking, pick up the pace. Credit:Getty
Researchers already know that people who move more tend to be healthier and live longer. Technology has allowed them to hone in on exactly how much we need to move to obtain those benefits.
The widely held belief that it was 10,000 steps a day came, not from research, but a clearly successful 1960s marketing campaign for a pedometer, named Manpo-Kei (Manpo means 10,000 steps in Japanese).
That idea was seemingly debunked only last year, when multiple separate studies found that health benefits seemed to plateau or improve only marginally beyond 7000 to 8000 steps a day.
Now, two large studies published in JAMA on Tuesday, assert that 10,000 leads to the greatest reduction in risk of dementia, heart disease, cancer and death.
The researchers, from the University of Sydney and University of Southern Denmark, also found that walking quickly could lead to an equivalent reduction in risk when people couldn’t hit the 10,000 mark.
For the studies, 78,500 adults aged 40 to 79 years wore wearable trackers for 24 hours a day for one week. Researchers then looked at their health outcomes seven years later and adjusted for a range of confounding factors, including that people who moved more were typically younger and had healthier lifestyles.
They found that 10,000 steps a day was associated with a 50 per cent lower risk of dementia.
Physical activity in general has “tremendous benefits” for the cardiovascular health and brain health, explains co-lead author Dr Matthew Ahmadi, Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health.
“We know that with dementia risk and brain health, in general, you’re likely to see improvements in vasculature throughout the brain, which may increase or maintain brain cell health,” Ahmadi says, adding that vascular dementia is tightly linked with cardiovascular health, which is affected by our physical activity levels.
Up to 10,000 steps a day was also associated with steady declines in cancer risk, cardiovascular disease risk and death by any cause.
The minimal dose for health benefits was 3,800 steps a day, which was associated with a 25 per cent reduction in dementia risk. For every 2000-step increase above that, there was an eight to 11 per cent reduction in cardiovascular and cancer disease risk.
Interestingly, walking pace had benefits above and beyond total steps and people who only moved 30 minutes a day, but at a fast walking pace, saw similar health benefits to the 20 per cent of participants achieving 10,000 a day.
“Sometimes hitting 10,000 steps can be really difficult,” says Ahmadi. “If you can just walk at a faster pace for brief moments throughout the day, you can, get those same health benefits as those who do have the time to get to that 10 K mark.”
He adds: “Obviously if you want to maximise everything, hit that 10 K and walk at a faster pace.”
Rob Newton, a professor of exercise medicine at Edith Cowan University, explains that higher intensity exercise “causes a much more potent production of ‘internal medicine’ within the body through hormonal and immune responses”.
Ahmadi explains that the discrepancy between this research and the studies published last year is because theirs was the first study to use 24-hour step data. Previous studies have monitored participants for 12 to 14 hours a day “potentially missing some additional steps that may occur”.
Given that devices giving us feedback about our activity have become so much more prevalent, it’s information that can give us a tangible aim each day and, Ahmadi says, may inform future public health recommendations:
“We’re working towards those first step-based guidelines for the 2030 iteration of the WHO physical activity guidelines.”
Newtown, who was not involved with the research, says it is a large and important study demonstrating “the absolute necessity” of regular physical activity. But, he adds, there is “nothing magical about stepping”.
Rather, it is the volume and the intensity that matters, so it might equally be achieved through swimming, rowing, cycling, dancing or running.
We also need strength training to prevent loss of muscle and bone as we age.
“Exercise is not a single medicine. It is many different types and how it is taken in terms of dosage has quite varied benefits to different systems within the body,” says Newton. “This latest research sends a clear message that despite all the advances in medical science humans have to be physically active every day.”
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