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Walking at least 2,200 steps helps you reduce your risk of heart disease. SolStock/Getty Images
  • People can get health benefits from walking 9,000 to around 10,500 steps per day even if they are sedentary for much of the day, a new study found.
  • Researchers found people start to see benefits after taking just 2,200 steps.
  • In people with high amounts of sedentary time, this number of steps reduced the risk of death by 39% and cardiovascular disease risk by 21%.
  • Experts say taking frequent walking breaks during sedentary periods can also improve heart health.

A new study has encouraging news for people whose job or other circumstances require them to sit for much of the day.

Researchers say every daily step you take beyond 2,200 steps per day reduces the risk of death and cardiovascular disease.

These benefits increase up to 9,000 to around 10,500 steps a day. At this level, you will see strong health benefits, even if you have a high amount of sedentary time.

Keith Diaz, PhD, a certified exercise physiologist and associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, said the findings simplify the public health message on the benefits of walking.

“We all have the same target, whether we sit for eight hours at work, or we don’t,” he told Healthline. “Everybody should be aiming for 9,000 to 10,500 steps per day. You will achieve comparable health benefits [at this level], and you don’t need to do more.”

Diaz was not involved in the new research, which was published Mar. 5 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Previous research has also shown that walking more during the day is associated with a lower risk of death and cardiovascular disease (CVD) events such as heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease.

In those studies, the optimal amount of walking ranged from 4,400 steps per day to 10,000 steps per day. Some of this variation may be due to differences among the study participants or how the studies were carried out.

Other research has found that high amounts of sedentary time — sitting or lying down while awake — increases the risk of death and CVD events, as well as type 2 diabetes and death from cancer.

In the new study, researchers looked at both steps per day and sedentary time to see if walking could lower the health risks associated with long periods of sitting.

To do this, they examined data on 72,174 people enrolled in the UK Biobank study. The average age of participants was 61 years, and 58% were female.

In the study, people wore an accelerometer device on their wrist for 7 days to measure their physical activity and sedentary time. On average, participants took 6,222 steps per day.

Researchers used the bottom 5% of people, based on step count, as a comparison group — the cut-off for this group was 2,200 steps per day. This allowed researchers to assess the impact of increasing step count on the risk of death and CVD events.

In addition, the average sedentary time was 10.6 hours per day. Researchers considered people above this level to have high sedentary time and those below to have low sedentary time.

With nearly 7 years of follow-up, 1,633 participants had died and 6,190 experienced one or more CVD events.

After taking into account other factors that might affect the outcomes, researchers found that the amount of walking needed to maximize the health benefits was 9,000 to 10,500 steps per day.

They also estimated that 50% of the benefits occurred with 4,000 to 4,500 steps per day. Both of these scenarios included people with high and low levels of sedentary time.

“These findings align with the longstanding message from fitness experts that incorporating more walking into daily life can substantially improve health outcomes,” said ACE-certified trainer Sabrena Jo, who was not involved in the research.

“The study also underscores the simplicity and effectiveness of walking as a means to counteract the risks associated with sedentary lifestyles and cardiovascular disease,” she told Healthline.

Diaz said the 50%-mark in the study fits with what he and his colleagues have seen in their research on sedentary behavior and walking.

“In our lab studies, what we have found so far is that about 5,000 steps, spread out over the course of eight hours, is what you need to offset the harms of sitting,” he said. “This is the least amount of walking you’d have to do to offset some of these harms.”

In the new study, the benefits and optimum step counts differed slightly for people with high sedentary time and those with low sedentary time.

Among people with a high amount of sedentary time, walking 9,000 to 9,700 daily steps lowered the risk of dying from any cause by 39% and the risk of a CVD event by 21%. This was in comparison to people who walked 2,200 steps or fewer per day.

In the low-sedentary group, walking 9,800 to 10,300 steps per day lowered the risk of dying by 31% and the risk of a CVD event by 29%.

The results also show that, beyond 10,500 steps a day, the risk of death and CVD events continues to drop slightly.

However, at that point, “you’re not reaping much additional benefit,” said Diaz. “Going from 10,000 to 20,000 steps per day will not give the same benefit as going from zero to 10,000.”

The results fit with other research on the benefits of movement, but there are some limitations to this study. First, it is an observational study, so researchers can’t show cause and effect, only that there is an association between daily step count and risk of death or CVD event.

In addition, while the large sample size and the long follow-up reduced some of the potential bias in the analysis, the researchers point out that other factors that they didn’t take into account may have affected the results.

Participants’ step count was also only measured once over a 7-day period. It’s possible that their walking habits may have changed later in the study.

However, based on their findings, the study authors concluded that any amount of walking above 2,200 steps per day was associated with a lower risk of dying or CVD event, regardless of sedentary time.

“Our prospective results provide relevant findings that can be used to augment public health messaging and inform the first generation of stepping-based and device-based physical activity and sedentary guidelines,” they wrote.

Walking more — up to a point — is good for your health, as shown by this and other research. But even if you walk 10,000 steps per day, there is still value in reducing the amount of time you spend sitting during the day, if possible.

“For high sitters [aka those with a high amount of sedentary time], their risk of heart disease was greater than low sitters across all amounts of steps,” said Diaz. Researchers found that this difference was about 10%.

So, “it’s about lowering your sitting time, while increasing your stepping time,” he said.

One thing the study didn’t look at is how people’s steps were spread out over the day, something that Diaz and his colleagues focus on.

In a study published last year in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, they found that 5 minutes of walking every 30 minutes improved both blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Taking a 1-minute walking break every 30 minutes also provided benefits, although the impact on blood sugar was lower.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Elevated blood sugar levels occur in prediabetes and diabetes, which can damage the heart, blood vessels and kidneys.

Diaz’s research shows that reaching the 9,000 to 10,500 steps per day target may be easier than you realize.

“It’s hard to find time to walk for two hours straight,” said Diaz. “But this approach, where you chip away at it and accrue steps over time, is a useful strategy for people who can’t get to the gym.”

Other types of movement may have similar health benefits. But one strength of walking is that it’s a low-impact form of physical activity that is accessible to most people at any age and fitness level, said Jo.

“It can also be tailored to specific health conditions or limitations,” she said, “such as walking at a slower pace or using walking aids if needed.”

And walking doesn’t require any special equipment or gym membership. However, if you prefer to exercise indoors, walking on a treadmill or an indoor track still provides the same health benefits.

To help you add more walking to your day, Jo offers the following tips:

  • Integrate walking into routine activities, such as running errands, commuting or taking kids to school. During the day, use stairs instead of elevators and escalators, whenever possible.
  • Make walking a family activity by setting specific times for walks together, such as after dinner.
  • Use technology to remind yourself to walk throughout the day. Fitness trackers or smartphone apps can also inspire you to set goals for walking a certain number of steps each day.
  • Create walking meetings at work or take calls while walking.
  • Explore new places in your neighborhood, city or elsewhere to make walking both exercise and an adventure.
  • Make it social by walking with friends while catching up, instead of sitting in a café or consuming a meal. Join a walking group or club for additional motivation and support.

Researchers examined data on over 72,000 people who took part in the UK Biobank study. Participants wore an activity monitor on their wrist for 7 days to measure the time spent being active, and also time spent sitting or lying down during waking hours.

Walking 9,000 to 10,500 steps per day was associated with a lowest risk of death or having a cardiovascular event such as heart attack or stroke. This was true even among people who spent more than 10 hours a day being sedentary during their waking hours.

Getting in at least 2,200 steps per day also had health benefits, with 4,000 to 4,500 steps per day providing 50% of the maximum benefit. Taking frequent breaks during sedentary periods can improve heart health and other aspects of health, experts say.