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Higher step counts could lower risk of early death, study finds | Society


It may be worth dusting off the fitness tracker when you head out on your government-approved stroll: researchers have found higher step counts are associated with a lower risk of early death.

While the figure of 10,000 steps a day is a popular goal, researchers have long criticised the fact it has its roots in a Japanese marketing campaign, rather than scientific research.

Now researchers say step monitoring in more than 4,800 adults aged 40 or over has shown that higher step counts are associated with a lower chance of death from any cause over a 10-year period. What is more, it seems individuals do not need to hit 10,000 steps a day to start seeing a benefit.

Dr Charles Matthews of the US National Cancer Institute, a co-author of the study, said the findings chimed with NHS advice that any type of activity is good and that doing more is better.

What do the new restrictions involve?

People in the UK will only be allowed to leave their home for the following purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home

Police will have the powers to enforce the rules, including through fines and dispersing gatherings. To ensure compliance with the instruction to stay at home, the government will:

  • Close all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
  • Stop all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
  • Stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals

Parks will remain open for exercise, but gatherings will be dispersed.

“[For] individuals that are recording around 4,000 or 5,000 steps a day on average, a fairly low number, from our data it appears that they can get substantial benefit from increasing to 8,000 steps a day,” he said, adding that those already reaching 8,000 steps a day benefit from doing even more steps.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the team describe how between 2003 and 2006, thousands of participants in the US were asked to fill out questionnaires about their health, diet, education and other factors, and were given an activity tracker to wear during waking hours for seven days.

Of the 4,840 participants with sufficient data, individuals took an average of 9,124 steps per day. Among these participants there were 1,165 deaths in total, including 406 from cardiovascular disease and 283 from cancer, over an average of 10 years following the data collection.

When the team analysed the data, taking into account factors including age, sex, health, smoking and education, they found higher step counts were linked to a lower risk of death during the follow-up period.

In particular, the team found that compared with taking 4,000 steps per day, taking 8,000 steps per day was associated with about a 50% lower risk of death and taking 12,000 steps per day was associated with a 65% lower risk of death.

By contrast, taking 2,000 steps per day was linked to a 50% greater risk of death than hitting 4,000 steps per day, with 21.7 deaths per 1,000 adults per year compared with 14.4 deaths per 1,000 adults per year respectively.

Further analysing showed higher step counts were also associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

By contrast the team found no link between mortality and the intensity of steps – explored by looking at steps per minute – once the total number of steps taken was considered.

However, the study has limitations, including that it cannot prove that the increased walking is the cause of a reduced risk of death, while participants’ data on their health and lifestyle was only collected at one point in time and by self-report, and activity was only monitored over one week.

Prof Emmanuel Stamatakis of the University of Sydney, who was not involved in the research, said: “This study confirms that the largest population-wide benefits will [be realised] if the least physically active people who do under 2,000 or even 4,000 steps per day are encouraged and supported to increase their step count to 6,000 to 8,000 steps per day.” But, he added: “For those who can comfortably fit 6,000 to 8,000 steps into their daily routine, the good old ‘10,000 steps per day’ is a great target.”

Stamatakis added that despite the study’s findings, increasing pace may bring additional benefits. Among his concerns, he noted the activity trackers could not pick up brief spurts of walking, did not separate walking from running, and could not take into account that the effort to take a given number of steps could differ from person to person.

Dr Charlie Foster from the University of Bristol, the chair of the UK chief medical officer’s expert committee for physical activity, also welcomed the findings.

“This study shows that any activity will be good for your physical and mental health with benefits at lower levels of total steps, and more mortality benefits seen at higher levels,” he said. While he noted that walking can be done by those of all ages, he said physical distancing was paramount to reduce the spread of Covid-19. “So walk and keep at least two metres away from others (except those in your house) once a day for your health and wellbeing,” he said.

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