• A new study suggests wearing a device to track and increase steps may lower the risk of several common chronic diseases.
  • The study indicated that taking approximately 8,200 steps each day offered protection against obesity, sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and major depressive disorder.
  • Experts say the results are encouraging but believe more research with more diverse participant pools is needed. They agree that adding movement into your daily life is beneficial and offered tips on simple ways to do that.

Want to reduce your risk for many chronic diseases and obesity? It may be best to take it step by step — literally.

Using a Fitbit device to track and increase daily step counts can lower a person’s risk for chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and sleep apnea, according to a study published online in Nature Medicine.

Generally, the risk for conditions went down as a person’s step count went up, except for hypertension and diabetes. The risks for those two conditions plateaued at approximately 8,000 to 9,000 daily steps.

One doctor finds the findings encouraging but is interpreting them cautiously.

“The study highlights how wearables can be a great motivator for activity,” says Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell, a physician, TEDx speaker, and founder of Beyond Clinical Walls. “However, it’s a motivator and not a substitute for finding out your overall health status.”

What’s more, the optimal number of steps for health and wearable devices’ abilities to count steps accurately have both been a matter of debate in the medical and fitness communities. Does this study do anything to settle the score?

Curry-Winchell and other providers weighed in on the study, steps, fitness trackers, and how to add more movement into your daily life.

The new study involves more than 6,000 participants ages 41 to 67 with a body mass index (BMI) of 24.3 (healthy weight range) to 32.9 (obese).

These participants came from the All of Us initiative launched by the National Institutes of Health in 2018 to gather health data from at least 1 million Americans.

Researchers analyzed four years of activity and health data from participants who sported wearable Fitbits for a minimum of 10 hours per day and granted researchers access to their electronic health records.

One of the limitations — admitted in the study by the authors — was the participants’ demographics.

  • 73% were females
  • 84% were white
  • 71% had a college degree

“Although validation in a more diverse sample is needed, these findings provide a real-world evidence-base for clinical guidance regarding activity levels that are necessary to reduce disease risk,” researchers wrote.

The findings suggest:

  • More than 8,200 steps daily (about four miles) could provide protection from obesity, sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and major depressive disorder.
  • People who are overweight can lower obesity risk by 64% by upping steps from 6,000 to 11,000 per day.
  • As the number of steps increased, the risk for most conditions declined.
  • Hypertension and diabetes risk did not continue to decline once participants were taking about 8,000 to 9,000 steps per day.

“Increasing physical activity, including increasing the number of steps you take, helps to increase your metabolism, improve your heart health, and burn calories,” says Dr. Jessica Simpkins, a graduate of the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine and the founder of the Abi Normal Society. “In many cases, the more you move your body, the less risk you have of developing diseases that are related to being overweight or sedentary.”

Curry-Winchell agrees that the sample size was not diverse enough but says the study is encouraging for people who don’t hit the oft-recommended 10,000-steps-per-day mark.

“Walking is beneficial even if you do not achieve 10,000 steps a day,” Curry-Winchell says. “Do your best to walk and be active as much as possible, and when there’s an opportunity to walk a little more – go for it. The number of steps you do daily can help reduce your overall risk for hypertension and diabetes.”

These days, we can track everything from calories to workout minutes and steps by wearing a watch like Apple’s or a tracker like Fitbit. It can help people reach fitness goals or benchmarks set by providers (and wearable devices), like the 10,000 steps suggestion.

But exactly how many steps equate to a healthy lifestyle and the accuracy of these devices is debatable.

“The 10,000-step recommendation comes from…1960s marketing. It was an arbitrary choice,” says Zahi A. Fayad, PhD, the director of the BioMedical Engineering and Imaging Institute and director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Program at Mount Sinai.

The Yamasa Corporation launched a pedometer with the slogan ”manpokei,” which translates to 10,000 steps per day, in 1965. That slogan has, over time, become an arbitrary standard, Fayad explains.

The new study calls for anywhere from 8,200 to 11,000 steps.

A 2018 study of 419 Japanese people aged 71 years old suggested getting about 8,000 steps per day lowered all-cause mortality.

An older 2011 review indicated that 7,000 to 8,000 steps per day was a good benchmark.

These studies aren’t apples-to-apples (for example, the 2018 study was on Japanese people who were all 71 years old versus the new study including adults ages 41 to 67).

Still, it can be confusing — how many steps should you be taking for your health?

“More data is needed…extracting detail regarding the direct impact of a specified number of steps per person,” says Dr. Nora Lansen, a primary care physician and the virtual clinical director with Galileo. “Despite the research, doctors don’t believe people should focus too much on precise numbers.”

It may sound like a frustrating answer —wearables have made us data-driven about our health and fitness. Lansen suggests taking more of a wide-view approach.

“Until higher quality evidence supports the hypothesis that the actual number of steps is impactful, I would recommend focusing less on the number of steps and more on incorporating regular, daily exercise in any form,” Lansen says.

Experts say rather than focusing on an exact number, it’s better to focus more on how you’re feeling.

“Pursue exercise that feels energizing and is enjoyable,” Lansen says. “If that’s walking — fantastic. It’s a great form of fitness. But even then, I’d advocate for focusing on movement, breathing, and centering rather than solely counting steps.”

The data on wearables’ step-count accuracy is also mixed. Fayad says they’re generally correct within 5 to 10%, so someone whose wearable indicates a 10,000-step day may have taken 500 to 1,000 more or fewer steps than the tracker says.

A 2020 study evaluated five devices (Samsung Gear 2, Fitbit Surge, Polar A360, Garmin Vivosmart HR+, and the Leaf Health Tracker) as a person walked and jogged either freely or on a treadmill.

Only the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ and Leaf Health Tracker were reliable in each condition.

Despite the potential for inexact step counts, Simpkins says that wearable devices can be beneficial.

“Tracking devices can help you stay accountable for your goal to increase your steps over time,” she says. “Some may be more accurate than others, but as long as you’re using the same device, it should be able to reliably track your progress over time. Seeing that progress can help you stay motivated.”

Though the number of steps may be up for debate, one healthcare professional says the idea that movement can improve mental and physical health outcomes is a valid and worthwhile takeaway.

“Steps have beneficial effects for the entire body,” says Dr. Leslie Saltzman, the chief medical officer for Ovia Health. “They make your heart and lungs function better, increase muscle strength, decrease inflammation in the body, essentially improving nearly every organ.”

The American Heart Association suggests getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week. Beyond that, Saltzman says there are simple ways to increase step counts.

Her four favorite ways are to:

  • Skip driving. “Walk to the store if it’s not that far. Take public transportation if it’s available,” Saltzman says.
  • Park at the edge of lots. If you do drive, choose a spot furthest from the venue or store. “That extra few minutes add up,” Saltzman says. (Bonus: If you’re shopping, your trip back will include some resistance training courtesy of your full bags.)
  • Take the stairs. Where applicable, Saltzman suggests skipping the elevator or escalator.
  • Walk and talk at the same time. Saltzman suggests phoning a friend, family member, or colleague while walking. It’ll help you multi-task and may take your mind off the movement if that’s something that helps you.

Adding more movement is important, but Saltzman advises against going from 2,000 steps to 8,200 in a day.

“I think the most important thing a person can do is to increase the number of steps they take gradually over time,” Simpkins says.

For example, if you can only walk down your driveway once right now, try walking down your driveway twice after a week.

“If you can walk 2,000 steps, gradually increase to 3,000. The more activity you can do safely without compromising good form, the less risk of developing certain diseases,” Simpkins says.