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Should you really aim for 10,000 steps a day?

Closeup of blue shoes walking on a treadmill.

June 17, 2019—Ten thousand steps every day—that's what many of us have been told is the formula for staying fit and healthy. It's such conventional wisdom, in fact, that it's the default goal in many activity trackers.

But just where that number came from isn't clear. The best guess: It may have been plucked from the name of a pedometer sold in 1965 in Japan called "Manpo-kei." That translates to "10,000 steps meter" in Japanese.

Now a new study calls that benchmark into question. It found that, at least for older women, far fewer steps come with a big benefit: a longer life.

A new sweet spot

The study tracked nearly 17,000 women. At the start of the study, each wore a device that monitored her steps for seven straight days.

Then researchers followed the women for an average of four years to see if there was any difference in who lived longer. Women who had reached an average of just 4,400 steps a day cut their risk of dying significantly. They were 41% less likely to die than those who took the least steps, an average of 2,700 a day.

What about women who walked more? As their average step count went up, their risk of dying went steadily down—up to a point. The benefits of moving more tapered off at about 7,500 steps a day.

How fast the women moved didn't appear to matter either. What made a difference in lifespan was the number of steps taken—not speed, researchers reported. But other studies have found that walking speed may affect life span.

This study focused on white women with an average age of 72. More research needs to be done to find out if the same results apply to more diverse groups.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

A step in the right direction

Steps can be a useful—and simple—way to measure exercise, the study's authors said. What's more, past studies show that counting steps can be a motivator to move more.

If you can do 10,000 steps a day now, there's no reason to stop. But if that seems a daunting goal to start with, a much lower target can still provide great results. Even a modest increase in activity is beneficial, the researchers emphasized.

Walking is one of the easiest exercises for most people to do. And it comes with a wide range of benefits. See what a difference it could make in your health.

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