Benefits of walking

While I am generally aware of the negatives of a sedentary lifestyle and the benefits of exercise, my own physical limitations rule out all strenuous forms of exercise. Hence I was interested in a new study that says that just walking, which I can do at least in limited amounts, can provide significant benefits.

The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, suggested that walking at least 3,967 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause, while 2,337 steps a day reduced the risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases.

Above these cutoffs, each increase of 1,000 steps a day was associated with a 15% reduction in the risk of dying from any cause, while an increase of 500 steps a day was associated with a 7% reduction in dying from cardiovascular disease.

“Our study confirms that the more you walk, the better. We found that this applied to both men and women, irrespective of age, and irrespective of whether you live in a temperate, subtropical or subpolar region of the world, or a region with a mixture of climates,’ Banach said.

“In addition, our analysis indicates that as little as 4,000 steps a day are needed to significantly reduce deaths from any cause, and even fewer to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

For younger age groups, the sharpest improvement in health was seen in individuals taking between 7,000 and 13,000 daily steps, while for those aged 60 years and over, it was between 6,000 and 10,000 steps.

For some time now I have been experimenting with how many steps a day I am capable of realistically doing. Too high a goal can become onerous and result in getting discouraged and giving up, while too low a goal may not help much. I finally arrived at an average 6,000 steps a day as my optimal level so I was glad to see that it seems worthwhile.

I do not do the steps all at once, though. I do it in four or five stages a day and try to mix up indoor and outdoor walking. I also used to, when driving somewhere, try and park my car closest to the destination but now I actually park far away just so that I have to walk a bit. Little things like that can increase the step count without becoming a burden.

It struck me that this is something that technology has helped a great deal. We now have pedometers that can count steps automatically, either built into one’s phone or as a cheap separate unit, making the targeting of goals easy. Before we had them, one would have to specify goals either in terms of the distances walked per day, which are very hard to estimate, or one would have to specify the total time that one walks, which is hard to keep track of.


  1. enkidu says

    That figure, 3,967, seems oddly specific. I wonder how they arrived at it.
    6000 steps seems pretty good to me, if maintained regularly. I aim for 10,000 myself, but often circumstances intervene.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’m certainly grateful for modern technology. Got a knee replacement late last year, and I can walk again without a cane or crutch! Did 6k today. Sadly, I still find it boring, but I structure it around shopping.

    Mano, have you considered a stationary bike, or is that ruled out?

  3. Dunc says

    While I’m fully on-board with the idea that walking is good for you, I’m generally sceptical of any specific numbers. For example, the statement that “walking at least 3,967 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause” raises some red flags -- like, if you do at least 3,967 steps a day, that’s good, but if you only do 3,966 it’s not? Yeah, right.

    I’m also somewhat sceptical of the accuracy of most pedometers… I dunno, maybe the specialist units are good, but I certainly noticed that the numbers reported by my phone were clearly nonsense. No, I haven’t done 123 steps whilst sitting on the couch drinking my morning coffee.

    Walking is good for you. Walk as much as you reasonably can. Try and go for a walk every day. Don’t worry too much about the numbers.

  4. Jazzlet says

    The only time my dad ever got exercise was when he walked somewhere, for a good fifty years that was walking to and from work five days a week, under two miles each way, and regular bird waching ‘walks’ -- inverted commas because bird watching involves a lot of standing still. He lived into his nineties and it wasn’t his heart that killed him. Anecdotal of course, but the point I want to make is that in my life time (he may well have done more during WWII, but he was a meteorologist for the RAF so I doubt it) he never, ever did any other kind of exercise at all.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Dunc @3: Also, what is “a step”? In terms of distance, it could be anywhere between a foot and a yard or more.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Jazzlet @4: I’m guessing your dad was a pretty laid-back sort of bloke. Some of us more highly-strung types need exercise to take the rough edges off. I honestly don’t think I could cope without it.

  7. says

    And for those of us who can’t? What are we supposed to do?

    Oh, sure, you can chuck me a walker and I can shuffle across a room, but it’s not exactly… realistic… to expect me to get 4k steps in.

    Rob @5 — In my case, ~6 inches.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#2,

    Thanks for the suggestion but I actually enjoy walking the amount that I do now so I will stick with it. It also gets me out of the house and into fresh air and meet neighbors.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Dunc @#3

    I am guessing that the authors ran some statistical analysis and that 3,967 steps was the mean value that they got and they published it as is. If you go below it, the graphs of benefits will give you a different result that varies with the decrease but it will not drop suddenly to zero.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#5,

    I did a rough estimate of my steps and came to the conclusion that 2,500 of my steps works out to about a mile.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    WMDKitty @7: I can only suggest what I’ve done when I couldn’t use my legs, and what wheelchair athletes do all the time; use your arms, any way you can.

  12. anat says

    What I like about my current fitbit (I never go for the newest models, I had one that I used from 2015 until it stopped recharging in 2022, then I got my current one, one of the cheaper and simpler models available at the time) is that it gives me immediate feedback not just about how many steps I walked that day but also how many minutes of ‘zone 2 equivalent’ exercise I have been getting. The general recommendation is 150 minutes per week, but really 300 minutes are much better. I usually do about 400 minutes of moderate (zone 2) exercise and some 40-50 minutes of more vigorous exercise (zones 3 or 4) per week, but even on ‘slow’ weeks I make an effort to get at least 300 minutes.

    Regarding some questions that came about in this discussion:

    The oddly specific number: That’s scientists reporting. It is the median number of steps of the quartile of their population with the lowest step counts.

    Dunc @3:

    For example, the statement that “walking at least 3,967 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause” raises some red flags — like, if you do at least 3,967 steps a day, that’s good, but if you only do 3,966 it’s not? Yeah, right.

    Not what they are saying. Look at figure 2. The reference quartile had a median step count of 3867 (not sure where the 8 to 9 change came in). The next quartile (Q1) had a median step count of 5537, and about half the all-cause-mortality of those in the reference quartile. And the people in the highest quartile (Q3) had a median step count of 11529 and a third of the all-cause-mortality of the reference quartile. The message is that those who walk around 4000 steps a day can half their mortality by walking around 5500 steps a day.

    Rob Grigjanis @5: Steps matter more than distance, because what affects your health is the effort you make.

    WMDKitty — Survivor @7:

    And for those of us who can’t? What are we supposed to do?

    Anything that raises your heart rate for some time.

    Holms @12:

    Not 1.07, but 0.93, which is the relative mortality of a person that increases their walking amount by 500 steps per day compared to their original mortality. As you can see from the figures, adding several multiples of 500 steps per day results in a very nice cumulative benefit.

    All: Look at figures 5! Older adults walking 20,000 steps a day are almost immortal!

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    anat @14:

    Steps matter more than distance, because what affects your health is the effort you make.

    I’d have thought speed would be the most important factor.

  14. Marja Erwin says

    There’s certainly a correlation. But since injuries and/or chronic illness can make it harder to walk, there’s some causation in the other direction. How can they tell how much causation is in each direction?

  15. anat says

    Rob Grigjanis @15:
    Simple pedometers only report number of steps total per day, or since the last time the instrument was reset. More sophisticated devices allow for measuring the intensity of the activity as well. For instance the Oura ring uses number of steps in a 15 minute window as a measure of whether the person was inactive, or was active at low, medium, or high intensity. The Fitbit monitors heart rate as well as step counts and uses heart rate as a measure of activity intensity. I expect other devices use these individually or in combination to achieve the same goal. In a meta-analysis like this one one would want to rely on a method that is uniform across all studies, so total daily step counts is the most available and reliable one. There are individual studies that look into activity intensity, but there are fewer of them and the methodology varies from one study to the next.

    (From those I recall, the main message is that moderate intensity is best in reducing mortality, a small amount of high intensity activity helps, but more of it is actually harmful. Whatever progress was made in sports medicine and training regimes, don’t forget the original marathon runner died from his effort.)

  16. anat says

    Marja Erwin @16:

    On the one hand, the authors of the meta-analysis removed studies that limited their population to healthy adults (as well as studies that limited their population to adults with risk factors). But on the other hand, at least some of the individual studies included in the analysis tested the effect of removing deaths in the first few years of follow-up (so if the results were biased by having very ill people in the study the researchers would see that). I also don’t see an effort to remove healthy-user bias (do people who walk more tend to have healthier diets on average than people who walk less? Are they less likely to smoke?)

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    anat @17:

    don’t forget the original marathon runner died from his effort.

    Regarding Pheidippides;

    He ran about 240 km (150 mi) in two days, and then ran back. He then ran the 40 km (25 mi) to the battlefield near Marathon and back to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC)

    More like 13 marathons!

  18. jrkrideau says

    @ Mano
    I am guessing that the authors ran some statistical analysis and that 3,967 steps was the mean value that they got and they published it as is.

    Essentially yes but it was a median not a mean.. Here is a bit from the study abstract.
    Compared with the reference quartile with median steps/day 3967 (2500–6675), the Quartile 1 (Q1, median steps: 5537), Quartile 2 (Q2, median steps 7370), and Quartile 3 (Q3, median steps 11 529) were associated with lower risk for all-cause mortality (48, 55, and 67%, respectively; P < 0.05, for all). Similarly, compared with the lowest quartile of steps/day used as reference [median steps 2337, interquartile range 1596–4000), higher quartiles of steps/day (Q1 = 3982, Q2 = 6661, and Q3 = 10 413) were linearly associated with a reduced risk of CV mortality (16, 49, and 77%; P < 0.05, for all). Using a restricted cubic splines model, we observed a nonlinear dose–response association between step count and all-cause and CV mortality (Pnonlineraly < 0.001, for both) with a progressively lower risk of mortality with an increased step count.

    Thank heavens it’s is in plain English.

  19. brightmoon says

    Thanks for the earworm Edwin Starr’s old hit “Twenty Five Miles”
    Step on , step on,
    I’ve got 5 more miles to go
    Over the hills just around the bend
    although my feet are tired
    I can’t lose my stride
    I got to get to my baby again
    Ive got to keep on walking
    I’ve got to walk on
    Let me tell ya , y’all
    I I I I I’m so tired but just can’t lose my stride

  20. sonofrojblake says

    I was intrigued to learn, years ago, that the whole “10,000 steps a day” thing didn’t come from science, but from typography and linguistics.

    In English, we have single words for the first few powers of ten:
    10^0 = one
    10^1 = ten
    10^2 = hundred
    10^3 = thousand

    But that’s where it stops, until you get to 10^6, when there’s a new word, “million”. For 10^4 and 10^5 you have to combine the words you already have.
    In Japanese, however, they have a single syllable word that means 10^4 -- “man”. AND the kanji character for “man” looks (if you have some imagination, and squint a bit) like a person walking (a person with no head, granted, but go with it).
    So “ten thousand steps” is just “manpo”. And in the mid sixties they marketed a gadget called a “manpo-kei” -- ten thousand step meter. So the idea that ten thousand was a target just came from that quirk of language and alphabet.

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