The Magic Number of Steps For a Prolonged, Healthy Life

In our ongoing quest for health and longevity, there’s one powerful yet wildly underrated activity with the power to change our physical destiny: walking. Despite being our primary form of movement, walking is a proven transformative force capable of building a healthier body.

In a way, society loves to sell us complexity. That the secret to revolutionary health is just behind a new complex fitness routine or dieting trend. However, the idea of walking pays homage to the old adage “less is more”. To beat the consequences of sedentary living, it’s clear that the humble strides like walking (when incorporated into a daily routine), have the profound ability to not only prevent premature death, but redirect one’s path towards physical well-being.

With the revelations of a few new studies, we’ll dive into how walking adds years to our lives and some practical steps to take reap its benefits.   

The marker for Health- Cardiovascular Disease

To understand how steps lengthen lifespans, clarifying which marker of mortality they protect from is very important.  That health marker happens to be primarily cardiovascular disease.

It stands to reason that cardiovascular diseases aren’t the only thing people are dying from. We’ve all got to die, and for one cause of death a person avoids, there are countless other ways that can take a person out. However, for all of the numerous life ending diseases out there, CD is the biggest and the baddest in the game- period.

To put this into perspective, heart disease is the leading cause of death in men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. It is so rampant that one person dies of it every 33 seconds. As of 2021, 1 of every 5 deaths in the US (695,000) were attributed to cardiovascular disease (1).

If that’s not bad enough, around 805,000 people experience heart attacks every year. Not to sound negative, but if statistics continue to trend on its current trajectory, many reading this may likely meet their end due to cardiovascular disease.  

The Dangers of Sedentary Living

It’s crazy to think that walking, the literal bare minimum of physical activity can add years to your life. However, to understand how something as simple as walking can prolong life, it’s important to grasp just how devastating sedentary living is.

Remember: cardiovascular disease and chronic illnesses may be the main cause of death, but inactivity is the root that sets everything in motion.  It seems like such a normal part of modern living, but most people don’t realize how much doing nothing is actively doing something terrible to them.

About 31% of the global population over the age of 15 don’t get enough physical activity and as a result it’s contributed to the death of about 3.2 million people year-on-year (2).

Inactivity essentially:

– reduces lipoprotein lipase activity, muscle glucose, and protein transporter activities. It also impairs lipid metabolism and decreases carbohydrate metabolism- all of which lead to obesity.

– decreases cardiac output and blood flow while simultaneously activating the sympathetic nervous system, which reduces insulin sensitivity and vascular flow.

–  alters the insulin-like growth factor axis and the circulation levels of sex hormones, which elevates the incidence of hormone-related cancers. Increased sedentary time impairs the gravitostat, the body’s weight homeostat, and weight gain, adiposity, and elevated chronic inflammation caused by sedentary behavior are risk factors for cancer.

Ultimately sedentary behaviors have all kinds of adverse effects on the body including (but not limited to):

– increased all-cause mortality

– cardiovascular disease mortality

– cancer risk

 – metabolic disorders like diabetes mellitus

– hypertension

 – dyslipidemia

– musculoskeletal disorders like arthralgia

 – osteoporosis

– depression

– cognitive impairment.

 As a whole, sedentary time (sitting, watching television or playing videogames, etc.) is independently associated with all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease incidences and mortality, and certain cancers and mortality (breast, colon, colorectal, etc.).

Studies found that individuals who watched tv for ≥ 6 hours a day had a two-fold higher risk of all-cause mortality than those who watched less than two hour a day.  

It all goes to show just how much power there is in both action and inaction. Either decision will determine the quality of life as well as its outcome. The good news is that drastic changes to one’s physical fitness isn’t necessary to see positive changes and even add years to your lifespan.  

Setting the Record Straight

Before anyone can start improving their health with walking, it’s important to know how many steps are actually necessary for ideal health. A person starting their fitness journey may assume they’ll have to walk an obscene distance to turn their health around. For some this belief may have stemmed from this the idea of walking 10,000 steps per day is not actually grounded in science. The concept originated from a marketing campaign by a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s, and it has since been widely adopted as a daily fitness goal. However, recent research suggests that while walking 10,000 steps a day is associated with weight loss, weight management, improved cardiovascular health, and reduced risks of dementia and cancer, the specific number itself is not based on scientific evidence.

In fact researchers determined it takes considerably less steps to trigger health benefits that prolong your life. Of course there are variables to consider; for example if you’re younger and capable of doing more physically, then walking more will certainly benefit you in the long run. Those older than 60 who are limited physically may have a different number of steps for optimal health. The point is that regardless of your age, the minimum number of steps for health improvement is not 10,000 as advertised previously.  The range of steps are varied and leave a lot of room for more or less benefits, including prolonged life. The question is; how many steps are ideal for preventing premature death? 

The Magic Number of Steps

Health professionals have found that if the goal is to minimize the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, the number is around 7,000 steps. However, from an international study led by the University of Grenada, the health community finally has definitive proof for the steps needed to drastically reduce the risk of premature death: 8,000 (3).

When you factor the stride of the average person (76 centimeters for men and 67 centimeters for women) 8,000 steps adds up to about 4 miles or 6.4 kilometers (4).

Keep in mind: it’s not just the distance but also the intensity of each step that yields the best results. Researchers found that it’s better to walk faster than slower in order to reap the most benefits. Switching between fast and slow aerobic intervals will increase your oxygen uptake, oxygen capacity to the lungs, and oxygen transportation to the heart compared to continuous, steady state cardio.  

Based on the study’s findings, we now understand that measurable benefits can be gained with a reasonable increase in the number of daily steps. Even individuals with very low levels of physical activity can improve their health with every additional 500 steps. This is great news for those who aren’t ready to start tackling 9,000 steps but want to make changes to their lifestyle gradually.

There is also no difference in number of steps between men and women; faster walking reduced the risk of mortality regardless of the number of steps or gender.

Physical Activity Recommendations

 The study offers very clear, actionable guidelines to reap the benefits of physical activity. The global fitness community generally advises adults to do 150- 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. 

With a concrete number between 7,000-9,000 steps, you have a clear number for hitting your daily steps and fitness goal. And as long as you keep each step fast you’ll also have a good idea of the ideal intensity level as well. With smartwatches and fitness trackers on the rise, tracking your steps is easier than ever and allows you to plan out your workouts more effectively.

There are different benefits associated with 7000 steps versus 9000 steps, whoever the differences in risk reduction are low.

In Conclusion

On the journey of life, where the paths of our choices cross and diverge as a result of our habits, walking serves as a powerful highway towards vitality and longevity. Each step leads us closer to rewriting our physical destiny and steers us further away to a premature end. As we wrap up our exploration of the transformative power of walking, it’s important to remember that taking simple, consistent action can ultimately lead us to a better, healthier tomorrow.