For many people, exercise is a numbers game: They grit their teeth to get to 10,000 steps a day, a seemingly magical number that's come to define fitness. Even Oprah Winfrey does it.
But what if you don’t need that much to get a health boost?
A recent study of elderly women found those who took about 4,400 steps a day had a lower risk of dying in the next several years than those who were the most sedentary.
“What’s really encouraging for these older women is that just doing a very little bit significantly benefited their health and they really didn’t need 10,000 steps a day to get to that benefit,” lead author I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, told TODAY.
“Part of it is getting used to the idea of just moving around. I’m not asking you to go out and exercise — just move around.”
Many activity trackers come with 10,000 steps a day as the default goal, but it's not clear where that number comes from — there seems to be nothing scientific or meaningful about it.
It likely stems from the name of a pedometer sold in 1965 in Japan called "Manpo-kei," which translates to “10,000 steps meter” in Japanese, the study noted. A researcher also once told Lee that the Japanese character for the number 10,000 looks like a man walking, and a journalist told her 10,000 is a lucky number in that country.
Some experts say even that goal — the equivalent of about 5 miles — isn't enough to be fit or lose weight.
But for many people, taking 10,000 steps a day may not be doable — with the average count for Americans closer to 4,000-5,000 steps a day, Lee said. She was curious whether older people really needed that more ambitious goal, or whether they could still benefit from steps taken during house work or gardening. Previous studies have found every bit of exercise adds up to a longer, healthier life.
The study is based on data from 16,741 women who wore step counters for a week. The participants, who were on average 72 years old when the study began, were followed over the next four years.
When they were divided into four groups, from the least active to the most active, it turned women in the group second from the bottom — who took about 4,400 steps a day — were 41% less likely to die during the follow-up period than women in the least active group who took about 2,700 steps a day.
The mortality rates progressively declined with more activity, but tapered off at 7,500 steps a day.
Stepping intensity didn’t make a difference: In other words, when two people took the same number of steps per day, but one stepped slower and the other faster, it didn’t seem to matter. What counted was the number.
The findings likely also apply to older men, but it’s not as clear whether they would apply to younger people or those who are more active, Lee said, adding that more research is needed in those groups.
The average able-bodied person usually gets to about 2,500 steps a day just by doing basic daily functions like going to bathroom, walking around house, getting mail and so on, she noted.
Adding just 2,000 more steps to that routine — equivalent to walking 1 mile throughout the day — is very doable and can significantly benefit your health, she said. Experts recommend moving every 30 minutes for at least one minute to reduce the harm of sitting all day. Walk around the garden, do more house work, play with your pets — the idea is to make movement automatic, just like brushing your teeth in the morning.
“When you get up in the morning, you don’t think about: Should I brush my teeth or should I not brush my teeth? Once you get into the habit of not sitting around so much, but walking a little bit more, people will be surprised by how easy it is to get the extra steps,” Lee said.
“Of course, there are people who will get to 10,000 steps — I’m not saying do less. If you want to do 10,000 steps, more power to you… I cheer for that person.”