Riders and Walkers at a Parkway

Setting the Bar Too High at 10,000 Steps Daily?

We’ve known all along that 10,000 steps per day is a goal for physical activity that came to us out of thin air. People latched on to it because it was a nice, round number. It was memorable. But the fact is that it’s arbitrary. In fact, evidence now tells us that one size does not fit all when it comes to setting goals for physical activity. Setting the bar for daily steps at 10,000 is probably too high for many people.

A New Study of People in Middle Age

The latest evidence appeared recently in JAMA Network Open. This cohort of 2,110 Black and White men and women came from a long-running study of cardiac risk in young adults. But time hurries on and for this study, these subjects were in middle adulthood –38 to 50 years old. They wore lab-grade step counters for two years.

The primary outcome for this study was death from any cause. The analysis broke people up into three groups based on their steps per day. The low activity group took fewer than 7,000 steps per day. For moderate activity, the range was 7,000 to 9,999 steps per day. The high activity group came in at 10,000 steps or more daily.

Moderate or high activity cut the risk of death by as much as 70 percent. It made no difference how intense the activity was. Nor did the high activity group do better than the moderate activity group.

Consistent with other studies, it is clear in this study that getting enough steps has a strong link to living longer. But more is not always better.

One Goal for All Won’t Fly

It’s also pretty clear that one goal is unlikely to optimize health for all. That magic number of 10,000 steps per day might be right for some people. Another study has shown, for example, that as few as 4,400 steps daily might provide significant benefits for older women.

Add to this the fact that the technology for step counters can be quite variable. Different devices can yield different counts. Some devices are less accurate for older persons. Because of this and other factors, we need better evidence to support broad guidelines. Nicole Spartano explains in an editorial alongside the new study:

“The next critical task for developing an appropriate national recommendation for step achievement will be to conduct studies with more sociodemographic diversity and to focus on more diverse health outcomes. Mortality is not the only matter of concern when it comes to developing a guideline for health promotion, and we also need to expand our study beyond cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. It is critical to focus our investigations on other health outcomes, such as quality of life, years of healthy life, mobility, mental health, and dementia and Alzheimer disease.”

So for now, the best bet is to find a goal that works for you – enough so that you feel and function better, but not so much that it offers more burden than reward.

Click here for the new study and here for Spartano’s editorial. For further perspective, click here, here, and here.

Riders and Walkers at a Parkway, painting by August Macke / WikiArt

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September 13, 2021