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USM Professor Lauds Health Benefits of Counting Steps while Walking

Thu, 08/24/2023 - 01:41pm | By: Van Arnold

Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology and NutritionAn analysis of studies published recently found that walking a minimum of 4,000 steps per day significantly reduces the risk of an early death, while taking at least 2,300 steps a day will reduce the risk of death specifically from cardiovascular disease.

The study, published earlier this month in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, analyzed data on nearly 227,000 people from 17 studies performed in Australia, Japan, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Anything below 5,000 steps a day is considered a “sedentary lifestyle,” according to the report.

Dr. Stephanie McCoy, Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Nutrition at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), concurs with the findings, while emphasizing the importance of regular physical activity.

“I agree with the assessment about the number of steps because I believe the important message within the article for the general population is that you do not have to perform a high intensity of exercise or a high volume to see health benefits,” said McCoy. “While the article and research on physical activity clearly states that more is better, something as simple as brisk walking short periods and distances will give you cardiovascular benefit.”

While approximately 4,000 steps a day was associated with a “significant” reduction in the risk of an early death, the biggest impact on risk occurred when people walked more than 7,000 steps a day, with the most benefit occurring at about 20,000 steps, the study found.

USMDr. Riley Galloway, Assistant Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Nutrition, agrees with the analogy that “more is better” up to a certain threshold.

“There is an established dose-response relationship with physical activity and health, however, for the general public, you don’t want to lead to a misconception that there’s essentially an ‘indefinite’ health benefit associated with extra steps per day,” he said. “In fact, too many steps per day can lead to overuse injuries and chronic fatigue. With that being said, the article could motivate people to get out and move since it states that health benefits may arise from as little as 2,337 steps per day.”

McCoy points out that there are many benefits to participating in regular cardiovascular activity, including something as simple as brisk walking.

“We see reductions in the risk of premature mortality, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, type II diabetes, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, obesity, many different types of cancers, depression, functional health, and cognitive function declines,” she said. “Similar to what is reported in this article with step counts, there is a dose-response relationship with physical activity, meaning that there is a greater reduction in risk the more physical activity you engage in.”

The study also found that adults 60 and older who walked between 6,000 and 10,000 steps a day saw a 42% reduction in risk of early death, while people under 60 who walked between 7,000 and 13,000 steps a day had a 49% reduction in risk.

Although McCoy has not conducted specific research tied to steps counts, her work does focus on the measurement of volume (minutes or hours) and intensity (light, moderate, vigorous) of physical activity and how that impacts cardiovascular health, particularly in children and adolescents.

“We know that physical activity participation throughout the lifespan is very important, and children who are physically active are more likely to continue those behaviors throughout adulthood,” said McCoy.

Galloway notes that the benefits from regular physical activity, such as walking regularly, are enormous.

“A regular walking regimen can help to maintain a healthy weight and decrease body fat, prevent, various chronic conditions, improve muscular and cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, increase cognitive function, improve sleep and memory, reduce the risk of illness from improved immune function, and relieve daily stress,” he said.

Galloway further emphasizes the importance of remembering that all the walking steps do not have to be accumulated at once, just like the recommended 30 minutes of exercise per day does not have to be in one session.

“You can break up exercise sessions into 10-minute bouts and add it up at the end of the day,” he said. “People are often surprised how many steps they accumulate when approaching exercise this way. “One thing I found to be a convenient way of incorporating healthy behaviors into the day is to get up and do something (such as walk a lap around the house or clean) during commercials breaks of your daily television time. Your body still responds to these types of activities and health benefits naturally occur in return.”

Not everyone is physically capable of walking/running to gain cardiovascular benefits. For those people, McCoy offers some suggestions.

“There are other ways that individuals can get exercise if they do not enjoy walking (particularly in the Mississippi heat) or if they are physically unable to walk that much. Swimming is an excellent full body mode of exercise with the water providing a higher amount of support for our body’s weight,” she said. “There are also different types of cycling that can also be done – recumbent cycle, traditional seated cycle, or just arm ergometry – when the equipment is available.”

Added McCoy, “Overall, I think the most important thing for individuals to remember is that engaging in regular physical activity is essential, and while more is better, something is better than nothing.”