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A daily step goal may cut disease and death risk in even otherwise sedentary people, study finds

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Ten thousand steps per day have long been known as the magic number needed to lower risk of disease and early death. What researchers didn’t know was whether the amount could have the same effect even for people who are sedentary most of the day.

That’s until now, due to research that has found among this group, getting 9,000 to 10,000 steps per day lowered the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 21% and the odds of dying early by 39%, according to the study published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The findings are “by no means a get out of jail card for people who are sedentary for excessive periods of time,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Matthew Ahmadi, in a news release.

Get 10,000 steps a day to potentially counteract the impacts of being too sedentary, a new study suggests. - Maskot/Getty Images
Get 10,000 steps a day to potentially counteract the impacts of being too sedentary, a new study suggests. - Maskot/Getty Images

“However, it does hold an important public health message that all movement matters, and that people can and should try to offset the health consequences of unavoidable sedentary time by upping their daily step count,” added Ahmadi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre in Australia.

The authors used data from more than 72,000 people who’d participated in the UK Biobank study, which has followed the health outcomes of more than half a million people between ages 40 and 69 in the United Kingdom for at least 10 years. Between 2013 and 2015, for 24 hours a day for seven days total, participants of the new study wore activity trackers on their wrists to monitor daily step count and time spent being sedentary (sitting or lying down while awake).

The average amount of time spent being sedentary was 10.6 hours daily, so the authors classified 10.5 hours or more as “high sedentary time,” while less than that was considered “low sedentary time.”

For a period of seven years on average, the authors followed the health trajectories of the participants by checking hospitalization and death records. They found that for people with low and high amounts of sedentary time, getting any number of steps higher than 2,200 per day was linked with lower odds of developing cardiovascular disease or dying early, with 9,000 to 10,000 steps carrying the most benefit.

“Of course, the more time one spends walking, the less time there is for sitting, and vice versa,” said Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine who wasn’t involved in the study, via email.

“Inevitably, those who walk the most sit the least, and derive benefits from both. Those who sit the most walk the least, and derive harms from both,” added Katz, who is also president and founder of the nonprofit True Health Initiative, a global coalition of experts dedicated to evidence-based lifestyle medicine. “Both matter — but neither ‘undoes’ the effects of the other.”

Increasing steps to reduce disease risk

The authors didn’t have data on the exact activities that participants did to earn their steps, but their study is the one of many that show “being active every day does wonders for your health,” said Dr. Andrew Freeman, a preventative cardiologist and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Exercise does a whole variety of things,” Freeman added. “It really tests and stresses the cardiovascular system, and the heart is a muscle, and, like any other muscle, it needs to be worked out to become fit.”

Walking, a common exercise for reaching step-count goals, helps to burn calories, maintain weight and improve bone density, Freeman said.

Some of the benefit for disease and premature death risk may also have to do with how exercising improves blood pressure, “one of the more potent killers of people worldwide,” Freeman said.

If you want to become more active, 10,000 steps can be equivalent to a several-mile walk that’s doable within a couple hours or so, Freeman said. But reaching that goal doesn’t always have to mean taking a huge chunk of time out of your day.

Before cars simplified travel, humans would walk up to tens of miles a day without thinking about it, Freeman said. The same has been possible in cities with high walkability or good public transit.

“The human body is designed to move a lot. You’re not supposed to be sitting at a computer for 12 hours a day and barely moving,” Freeman said. “The question is, how do you weave that into your day?”

You can break the exercise up into 30-minute segments, one of which should be vigorous intensity, or to the point at which you can’t carry on a conversation, he added.

Some easier ways to get steps in include taking the steps instead of the elevator or escalator when you can, or parking farther away from a store. Some companies and employees have started holding meetings during walks, or placing portable treadmills under their desks so they can exercise while working.

“Exercise is great for you, and it is truly the magic elixir that hits virtually every disease we take care of,” Freeman said. “If you’re sedentary, don’t despair — get up now, and get moving and make it happen.” 

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