Walking is a great exercise. The truth about the number of steps you really need, and maximizing the benefits

If you’re looking to boost your health, walking is the panacea. For those with the ability, simply putting one foot in front of the other on a regular basis for a certain portion of your day tones your heart muscle, reduces your disease risk, reduces joint pain, and boosts your immunity.

It’s an exercise that for the most part, doesn’t require any special equipment, can be done inside or outside, and is available to people at almost all fitness levels. It’s close enough to perfection that Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called it “the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.”

Still, scientists have been digging deeper to see if we’ve mined the maximum benefit from this super exercise.

7,000 is the new 10,000 steps

When you don any kind of fitness watch or step counter, the default programmed daily step goal is typically 10,000. But where did that number come from? One recent study in The Lancet did a deep dive into the merits of 10,000 steps a day and found that 7,000 steps are closer to what people need for maintaining good health.

“That 10,000 steps was never a peer reviewed number,” says Dr. Howard Luks, orthopedic surgeon in New York and author of Longevity … Simplified: Living A Longer, Healthier Life Shouldn’t Be Complicated. “There’ve been a lot of studies of late that show that we really only need 6,000–7,000 steps a day to derive a pretty significant benefit.”

And the older you are, the more you benefit from fewer steps a day, Luks says. The under-40 set can aim for the higher numbers, like 8,000 or above.

When you’re setting a step goal for yourself, think first about your own personal improvement instead of an arbitrary number, says NiCole Keith, professor of kinesiology at Indiana University–Purdue University and immediate past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

“Ten thousand steps is a lot of steps,” she says. “If you’re an active person and you’re out walking all the time, or you work in a manual labor job and you’re on your feet and you’re carrying things and walking around like a box door or something, that’s great But if you’re a receptionist and only getting 3,000, then make a goal to make it 3,500. Then see if you can push it up to 4,000.”

Intervals and walking poles add extra perks

Certain methods of walking may have specific extra benefits. A 2017 study in the journal Cell Metabolism found that interval training—peppering your regular walking pace with faster spurts—helps reverse the breakdown of muscle cells and improve muscle power in people ages 65 to 80. Another recent study on walking while holding poles (Nordic walking) can improve your heart function faster than regular walking.

But while these particular modifications can bring certain perks, Keith advises not to let the quest for the “perfect” walking method prevent you from walking at all.

“It’s good to have these studies and to have people paying attention to them, but we don’t want people to come away thinking they have to do it this way or no way,” she says. “The ultimate message is just to walk, to get out there and just do it whatever way is accessible to you.”

The downstream effects of immobility and sedentary behavior are terrible, says Luks. Focus on moving your body regularly so the steps add up, and you’ll reap the benefits you need.

“There’s no ‘wrong’ way to walk,” he says. “I think it’s far too easy for people to find excuses not to do something if it’s too challenging. Is walking faster probably a little better? Sure. Is walking a little longer a little better? Sure. However, if at the end of the day, your watch or phone shows that you banked your total steps, you’re good.”

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