Over the years, the notion of 10,000 daily steps has been frequently espoused as a healthy goal, including by this very blog.
However, a new study out of Scotland, published in the International Journal of Obesity, suggested that a whopping 15,000 daily steps may be required to ward off poor health.
In the cross-sectional study, 111 non-smoking Glasgow postal workers (55 office workers and 56 walking/delivery workers) had their activity level assessed by wearing activPAL physical activity monitors for 7 consecutive days.
The participants in the study were of an average age of 40 years, and had a mean body mass index of 26.9 kg/m2. The participants spent approximately 9 hrs of their day in sedentary activity, 8 hrs sleeping, 4 hrs standing, and 3 hrs stepping each day.
Unsurprisingly, the authors found that greater levels of sedentary time were associated with poorer levels of various metabolic markers (consistent with multiple prior studies).
The key finding that has gotten all the news outlets excited is the following: participants who walked >15 000 steps per day or spent >7 h per day upright presented with none of the features of the metabolic syndrome (increased blood pressure, poor glucose metabolism, excess abdominal fat, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels).
While this finding is interesting and may suggest we’ve been too conservative with current walking goals, there are a few issues to consider.
First, this study is based on data from a mere 111 patients; caution should be exercised as to not over-extrapolate these findings. Clearly, a larger data set would provide a bit more confidence in the estimates presented.
Secondly, the researchers did not follow the study participants prospectively over years to evaluate who actually developed heart disease. While the cross-sectional data certainly paints a picture of poorer health among those who walked least, whether this information translates to more hard endpoints (heart attack, stroke, etc.) remains to be seen.
Perhaps most importantly, from a public health perspective, is it helpful to raise the daily step goal by 50% for a population that is very sedentary? Or does this heightened benchmark act to further discourage sedentary individuals from taking the first step (pun intended)? Personally, I find that the best way to start something that I’m not particularly excited about is to minimize the hurdle for achieving success – making those early wins easy. If I was very sedentary, spending nearly every waking moment in a chair, couch, or bed, the prospect of performing 2 hours of brisk walking may be pretty daunting. But a half hour walk after dinner may be more realistic.
In the end, whatever the magic number of daily steps is to achieve ‘optimal health’, its important to keep in mind that any increase in daily physical activity over the status quo is beneficial, and that walks of heroic distances are not the necessarily a realistic goal, especially when just starting out.