Dr. Zorba Paster: Number of steps taken could be life or death

Dr. Zorba Paster: Number of steps taken could be life or death


How many of you have a fitness monitor, like a FitBit or an Apple watch? And how many of you think that 10,000 steps a day are the number you need to stay healthy?

Now, how many of you know where that 10,000 steps number came from? I’m guessing only a handful of you do.

I bet lots of you thought that number was scientifically based? Perhaps from a rigorous study done years ago that said 10,000 was the number we all needed to stay well. Nope. It was an advertising gimmick from a Japanese company many years ago used to sell pedometers.

Remember those things? Gadgets that hung from your belt or clipped to your bra strap to count your steps — old school. The first ones were made with spring-loaded mechanisms that would click with every step you took. They counted the steps with a little wheel that would mechanically turn, round and round, the more steps you took.

Ahh … that was a time when a telephone was still a telephone.

But the bottom line is, where’s the data to back up that number of steps? A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association gives us a peek into what we all should really be doing to stay well.

Researchers took approximately 18,000 participants in the Women’s Health Study with a mean age of 72. All were fitted with a step counter, wearing it over a seven-day period between 2011 and 2015. They looked at how many steps a day everyone was taking and how fast they were stepping. Then they compared it to who lived and died over a four-year period.

After that, they divided the data into quarters. The lowest group walked 2,700 steps per day, the next quarter walked 4,300 steps, the next quarter was at 6,000 steps and the top group logged 8,400 steps. Very few walked 10,000 steps per day.

Looking at the death statistics, they found women who walked 4,400 steps per day were a whopping 41% less likely to die in that period than the women who walked only 2,700 steps per day. The more steps you walked, the less likely you were to die until you reached 7,500 steps per day. At that point, going higher didn’t seem to have much benefit at all.

Now, on to how fast you walked. There are strollers and there are fast walkers. The jogging lobby, of which I was a member years ago, would say faster is better. But not so … well, fast. It turned out that the number of steps trumped the intensity of the walking pace.

There is a weakness in that the study only looked at older women. Guys are obviously a separate group, but I doubt if that really makes a big difference.

But the strengths of the study are that it was a large study, well-controlled with good data over a long period of time. It fits with other studies, such as a recent one out of Australia with 2,500 men and women, one out the United Kingdom with 1,600 men and women, and one out of Japan with 400 people.

All three studies had five- to 10-year follow-ups. Combine this with a previous study I reported on showing that seniors who walked less than 1,200 steps per day became more and more frail and that 2,000 steps was the bare minimum. All of this research shows the same thing — steps are a life and death matter.

My spin: This is good news. We now have some clear guidelines. If you don’t have a fitness monitor, go buy one. They start at $30 on the web and in big-box stores.

Next, set your goal. It should be 4,400 steps per day. Then plan how to attain it. Strolling, quick walking, jogging, dancing — whatever turns you on will sweeten your life. Stay well.

This column provides general health information. Always consult your personal health care provider about concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort is implied or offered by Dr. Paster to people submitting questions. Any opinions expressed by Dr. Paster in his columns are personal and are not meant to represent or reflect the views of SSM Health.


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