How fast you walk could be just as important for your health as how many steps you take each day, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Southern Denmark found that 10,000 steps each day is the “sweet spot” to help lower the risk of disease and death. They also found that a faster pace, such as a brisk power walk, can have even greater benefits.
The data was collated as part of the largest study tracking step counts in relation to health outcomes.
Researchers monitored 78,500 UK adults between 2013 and 2015 using wearable trackers and compared this with their health outcomes seven years later . The results were published in the journals JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology.
Dr Matthew Ahmadi, the co-lead author of the paper and a research fellow at the University of Sydney, said the study found that by walking 10,000 steps a day “you could lower your risk of dementia by about 50%, and for cardiovascular disease and cancer, you’d be lowering it between 30 to 40%.”
Walking at a fast pace was associated with further benefits for all outcomes including dementia, heart disease, cancer and death.
The study also found that every 2,000 steps lowered the risk of premature death incrementally by 8 to 11%, up to about 10,000 steps a day.
While a higher number of daily steps was linked to a lower risk of all-cause dementia, the risk was reduced by 25% with as few as 3,800 steps a day.
The idea of walking 10,000 steps a day to improve your health was originally conceived as part of a marketing strategy by a Japanese company, according to research published in 2019.
However, Prof Tony Blazevich, an expert in biomechanics at Edith Cowan University, said these outcomes make “heaps of sense”, particularly when looking at cardiovascular health.
“The more your blood flows through your arteries, the more they trigger the self-renewal processes in your arteries,” he said, pointing out that faster-paced walking increases people’s heart rate more than slower walking.
“Theoretically, if you can get your heart rate up and get the blood flowing faster you might repair your arteries a bit better. Extra blood flow can be really good for all parts of our body – our brains, our muscles, everything.”
When considering the link between walking and a reduced risk of cancer, Blazevich said there is a theory that cancers are strongly linked with inflammation in our bodies.
“We know that exercise is one of the best ways [to minimise] inflammation,” he said.
Over the years researchers have debated the daily step count people should aim to achieve improved health outcomes. Blazevich said most studies say people should aim for between 7,000 and 10,000 steps.
“Generally what we find is that going from nothing to something gives us the biggest bang for buck,” he said. “Say at the moment you’re only doing around 3,000 steps a day, if you go up to 5,000 that will have a relatively big effect.”
Prof. Tim Olds, a behavioral epidemiology researcher at the University of South Australia, said for the majority of people the more exercise they do the better, with diminishing returns. Typically, the health benefits of walking tend to level off or plateau at higher step counts.
“The first 5,000 steps does much more good than the next 5,000 steps and so on,” he said. “If the first unit gives you one unit of good, the next unit is another half unit of good.
“The question then is: where do you draw the line?”
Olds said there is “no magic figure”, but 10,000 steps is a reasonable aim when built into your day-to-day lifestyle.
“Start off modestly and slowly and just build up gradually bit-by-bit each day, or each week at least, until you find what you’re comfortable with [and] that fits in with your lifestyle,” he said.
“I really recommend you have some time of the day which is your exercise time and it has absolute priority.”
This could be as easy as getting off the bus a few stops early and walking to work, or setting aside time each day to walk the dogs or listen to a podcast while walking, Olds said.