People walking on the street.

If 10,000 steps a day sounds like too lofty a goal, take heart: People who step less than half that amount may still see significant health benefits, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. 

Researchers looked at the average daily step counts for 16,741 women with an average age of 72 for one week and found that those who walked just a moderate amount—an average of just under 4,400 steps per day—were 41 percent less likely to die over the next four years than women who walked approximately 2,700 steps per day.

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Many people take at least 2,700 steps doing daily activities, says I-Min Lee, Sc.D., a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the new study. Walking about a mile more than that is associated with a dramatic reduction in mortality rates.

In other words, most sedentary people might just need a slight increase in activity level to see major benefits. “If you’re at that [sedentary] level and think you need to get to ten thousand, that’s a very steep climb,” she says.

But hitting four or five thousand steps “is very doable,” Lee says.

Modest Effort, Major Health Benefits

For this study, Lee and colleagues wanted to assess the value of the 10,000-step goal that’s built into many apps and fitness trackers.

“The scientific evidence that underlies 10,000 steps isn’t really clear,” Lee says. She says that the whole idea of 10,000 steps comes from the brand name on a Japanese pedometer but that the device’s name wasn’t based on solid scientific research.

Lee and colleagues found that the 25 percent of women who walked the least, averaging close to 2,700 steps, were most likely to die in the approximately 4.3-year follow-up period. Reaching about 4,400 steps was associated with significantly lower risk for death, and walking more was connected to even lower risks—though those benefits leveled off after about 7,500 daily steps. The speed or intensity that people walked at didn’t seem to affect mortality rates.

It’s possible that people who walked more were already healthier, and that’s why it seemed they had a lower risk for death. However, the researchers attempted to control for this by looking at step counts only for women who said they were in good or excellent health, and the results still held—those who walked more were still less likely to die during the four years of follow-up.

The study looked only at women and primarily at older women. That means the exact numbers associated with benefits may differ for men and younger populations, Lee says, though the general takeaway that moving more is associated with improved health should remain the same.

This is one of the first studies to look at the “dose-response” for steps, showing just how many steps are associated with reduced risk for death, says Lyndon Joseph, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist in the division of geriatrics and clinical gerontology at the National Institute on Aging.

“What this shows is [that] exercise is beneficial, and the more exercise you do, the more benefits you see,” he says. 

Why Striving for 10,000 or More Steps Still Could Help

While women who walked 10,000 or more steps had close to the same risk of death during the study period as those who walked 7,500, that shouldn’t discourage people from trying to exercise beyond the 7,500-step count, Lee says.

Younger people might benefit more from more steps, she says, and even older populations could still see other benefits from walking more, such as a reduction in the risk for certain diseases.

People who want to lose weight or improve their fitness will probably need to strive for higher step counts or more exercise, Joseph says.

U.S. fitness guidelines call for people to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, with at least two sessions of strength training.

This study should be encouraging for people who find the idea of starting exercise daunting, Lee says, because just a modest amount of exercise is so beneficial. But it shouldn’t be taken as a reason to do less. 

How to Exercise More

Whether you’re totally sedentary and want to start hitting that 4,400-step count, or you already do that and want to do more, some simple lifestyle tweaks can make it easy to hit your goals.

  • Build walking into your daily life. An easy way to do this is to make small changes, such as parking farther from a store, Lee says. Even better, she says, is to walk somewhere to run errands instead of driving whenever possible.
  • Try to improve a little at a time. If you’re not moving much, set realistic goals to start. Try to walk about 1 mile more a day, Lee says. “Do something you can comfortably accomplish and build it up as time goes on,” Joseph says.
  • Find an exercise activity you like enough to do regularly. Some people love walking or jogging, but others will enjoy something like cycling or canoeing more, Joseph says. The goal is to exercise consistently over time, so you need to opt for something you will do regularly.
  • Use reminders to keep yourself moving. Some experts recommend scheduling workouts on your calendar so that you’ll follow through with them. If you just want to move more and happen to be someone who uses a fitness tracker or smartwatch, you can set many of them to remind you to get up and move if you’ve been sedentary for a period of time, according to Charles Davidman, who heads up testing for fitness trackers and smartwatches at CR.

Recommended Trackers

Here are two fitness trackers and a smartwatch that are recommended by CR and receive top marks for step-count accuracy. For more, check out our fitness tracker buying guide and our fitness tracker and smartwatch ratings.

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Samsung Gear Fit2 Pro

Price: $200

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Garmin Vivofit 4

Price: $80

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