In the 2010s, Fitbits became hot tech accessories and each came with 10,000 steps a day as a default goal, reinforcing that measurement as a health guideline. But 10,000 steps a day was never a science-backed goal, so how many steps do we really need? A new meta-analysis hints at the answer.
In recent years, epidemiologists and other public health researchers have started to scrutinize the established idea that we need a certain number of steps — 10,000 to be exact — in a day. Recent studies that tracked participants’ average step counts over years came to different numbers — often around 7,500 to significantly reduce the risk of death from a chronic disease. But many of these conclusions were limited to people middle-aged or older.
A new meta-analysis published this month in The Lancet takes a broader approach. The researchers amassed data from several studies, with a total sample of more than 45,000 adults. For people under 60, about 10,000 steps a day seemed to actually be a pretty good goal.
Science in Action — The researchers found 15 studies that tracked participants’ average daily steps and their health outcomes. The studies lasted for time periods ranging from 2.7 to 13.5 years, with a median of 7.1 years.
The studies came from across the globe — Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America — and included 47,471 participants in total.
How This Affects Longevity — For participants 60 years and older, the risk of death from a health-related issue was 50 percent less for those who averaged 6,000 to 8,000 steps per day. Among those younger than 60, mortality risks were cut by half at 8,000 to 10,000 steps.
At these levels of activity, life-extending benefits pretty much plateaued, lead author Amanda Paluch tells Inverse. “There does seem to be benefits beyond that but it was not statistically significant.”
Fewer steps could make a significant difference. The researchers split the participants into quartiles. The lowest quartile for people younger than 60 took a median of 4,849 steps a day and the lowest among those 60 and older took 2,841 steps. Once someone in the younger-than-60 sect reached 5,000 steps a day and someone in the older reached 3,000, they had less risk of dying than those in the lowest quintile.
Why It’s a Hack — The 10,000 steps-a-day target seems not to have started with any scientific study or consensus, but a 1960s-era marketing campaign by a Japanese company called Yamasa Clock. They made a pedometer called “Manpo-kei,” which translates to “10,000 steps meter.” Some have guessed the number comes from the resemblance of the Japanese character for 10,000 to a running person.
Among those younger than 60, mortality risks were cut by half at 8,000 to 10,000 steps.
If you are using steps as a daily habit to extend your healthy years, you might want a better measurement.
“It's been around for nearly half a century, and we haven't really had the empirical evidence to back up if 10,000 steps per day is really what we need for health benefits,” says Paluch.
She worked on a 2021 study that found 7,000 steps was sufficient to increase the odds of warding off an early death for middle-aged adults. Also, a 2019 study of older women (mean age 72) found that 7,500 steps was the maximum for any statistical benefit during the study’s span of 4.3 years. A 2020 study that followed 4,840 people for 10 years found that 8,000 steps cut mortality rates by half, but the benefits of taking more steps per day were minimal.
It’s important to get the message right, says Paluch, because health-tracking devices have potential to raise awareness of the benefits of walking, which are undeniable.
“Thinking about the growing utilization of these types of devices — we can even track our steps on our smartphones — you see how having very simple but evidence-based numbers can promote physical activity.”
Hack score — Five out of ten congratulatory phone notifications from your fitness device 🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉