Walking 7,000 steps a day can cut the risk of heart disease

Taking 7,000 steps a day can keep a middle-aged person’s arteries healthy and reduce their risk of death by up to 70%, a new study concludes. The findings by researchers from across the United States suggest that this lower number is still enough to protect against serious heart complications, rather than the common recommendation of 10,000 steps per day.

The study examined a group of adults between 38 and 50 who took at least 7,000 steps daily — about three miles — and discovered that these individuals were much less likely to die over the next decade. Mortality rates among both white and black participants fell by 63 and 70%, respectively, compared to their sedentary peers.

Study authors also identified a difference among men and women raising their daily step count. Deaths among men fell by 58%, however, that rate jumped to 72%among women.

“This cohort study found that higher daily step volume was associated with a lower risk of premature all-cause mortality among Black and White middle-aged women and men,” study lead author Dr. Amanda Paluch of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and her team concluded in the journal JAMA Network Open. The 2,110 volunteers wore an accelerometer from 2005 to 2006 and researchers followed them for an average of nearly 11 years. 

The volunteers were all taking part in a program looking into the risks of coronary artery disease. “Participants taking at least 7,000 steps per day, compared with those taking fewer steps, had a 50% to 70%  lower risk of mortality,” the researchers write.

At a brisk pace, it takes the average person about 70 minutes to complete 7,000 steps, compared to around two hours when taking 10,000 steps. However, the study adds to recent evidence suggesting this number is overkill. “Taking more than 10,000 steps per day was not associated with further reduction in mortality risk,” the team reports.

The World Health Organization advises adults to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity on a weekly basis. “Regular physical activity is one of the most important behaviors people can do to improve or maintain good health. Being physically active provides substantial health benefits for many conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and several cancers, as well as improving quality of life,” the researchers add. 

The number of steps people take each day is a simple metric for quantifying total daily activity. Modern wearable health gadgets are popular with millions of people worldwide. The devices, worn on the wrist, arm, or belt, estimate how active someone is by tracking the number of steps they take.

“National guidelines for physical activity do not include step counts as a public health target owing to the limited number of studies demonstrating the prospective associations of step volume and intensity with clinical outcomes, including mortality. Most prospective studies on steps and health include samples of older adults, whereas few studies include adults earlier in their life course or racially diverse populations,” the study authors note in their report. 

The results back previous research suggesting increasing daily steps among the least active may add years to their lives. An analysis in Norway also discovered that increasing the step count reduces death rates among unfit groups by up to 57%. Two earlier studies in the U.S. find that just 4,000 steps a day reduce mortality by around 30%.

Dr. Paluch and the team add that their findings may have important clinical implications for heart health. Wearable monitoring systems are becoming a key tool in the prevention and management of chronic conditions.

“Steps estimated from these devices could be a simple metric to track and promote physical activity. Encouraging walking to achieve step goals is a well-tolerated form of activity for most people,” the team concludes. Overall, wearables like the Fitbit have exploded in popularity over the last decade, going from about a half-million users in 2012 to 29.5 million users in 2019.

The study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.