Woman wearing a backpack walks towards steps outside

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Is 10,000 Steps a Day *Really* the Magic Number?

Walking is one of the most underrated workouts—and you may not need to walk as much as you think to reap the benefits.

By Leigh WeingusNovember 15, 2023


For years, we’ve heard that 10,000 steps is the ideal number of daily steps to aim for—and there’s definitely some truth to this. But there isn’t really a “magic” number that works for everyone when it comes to steps per day since there are quite a few factors that influence how many steps you need per day. One thing most people agree on? Walking more is good for you.

According to a 2022 study of nearly 80,000 participants, people who walked more steps per day (up to 10,000) had a lower risk of dementia, cancer, heart disease, and early death. In other words, glancing at your Smartwatch a few times a day to make sure you’re on track to make 10,000 steps is probably a good idea.

But the findings of this study aren’t the whole picture, and in fact, within the study, there are quite a few nuances. Here’s everything you need to know about the daily number of steps you really need, and how to make sure you get them. 

The Health Benefits of Regular Walking

It might not get as much attention as a heart-pounding HIIT workout or an energetic cycling class, but walking has a host of known health benefits. According to the CDC, walking on a regular basis can improve sleep, memory, and lower anxiety symptoms. It can also reduce the risk of chronic conditions like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. 

Craig Cooper, MD, a cardiology fellow at Tufts Medical Center, recommends walking workouts to his patients. “Walking has been found to improve cardiovascular fitness by lowering resting heart rate and blood pressure, improving endurance, helping with weight loss and reduction of excess body fat, reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, maintaining healthy bone mass, and even improving immune function,” he says. “It is also a great stress reliever and can reduce symptoms related to anxiety and depression.” 

Charlotte Weidenbach, a Peloton instructor and doctor, says that while 10,000 steps can be a helpful guideline for people, it’s not a magic number, and every step—and workout—counts. “The idea is to fight our sedentary lifestyle and make people move more,” Charlotte explains. “If you get fewer steps in but are cycling to work, taking the stairs, and taking Peloton Cycling Classes… it is absolutely fine [to take fewer steps].”

In fact, the same large study cited above found that walking more quickly is associated with increased health benefits, and also that every step counts. Even if you can’t get to 10,000 steps per day, walking more rather than less will always be a good idea for your health.

Does Age Change the Recommended Steps Per Day?

While 10,000 steps per day is a good benchmark, it’s hard to say what the exact “magic” number is when it comes to the amount of steps you should get per day. “The exact number of recommended steps varies by research article and age,” Dr. Cooper says. “A large meta-analysis published in Lancet in 2022 found that while taking more steps per day was associated with a progressively lower risk of mortality, this effect tended to plateau for those over 60 over 7,000 steps.”

But, he points out, for those under the age of 60, the plateau was around 9,000 steps. “Other studies have looked at different step cutoffs, but the overall results are largely the same: the more daily steps you take, the lower your risk of mortality, an effect that reaches a plateau at some number of steps.”

Dr. Seth Martin, MD, a cardiologist with Johns Hopkins Medicine and a co-author of a 2023 metanalysis that examined the impact of step count on cardiovascular mortality, says it’s difficult to assign a specific step count based on age group alone. The study found that daily step counts over 3,867 per day were linked with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, and people who took just 2,337 steps per day had a lower risk of cardiovascular-related mortality. “I haven’t seen much definitive evidence across different age groups, so I hesitate to assign step counts by age,” he says.  

While this topic needs to be studied more extensively, based on the research we do have, those over the age of 60 should aim to get at least 7,000 steps per day. If you’re under the age of 60, aim to get at least 9,000 steps. But it’s important to note that benefits start at as low as 2,000 steps per day, so if that’s all you can get, that’s still better than nothing. 

Is It Realistic to Walk 10,000 Steps Per Day? 

For some people, it is realistic to walk 10,000 steps per day, especially for those who live in cities or towns where it’s more common to walk than drive. But Dr. Cooper emphasizes that if 10,000 steps a day is not doable for you, it’s important to set a goal that is achievable. “You want to select a number that is challenging yet achievable and that will keep you engaged without making you feel discouraged,” he says. “You have to start somewhere, and it is always OK to further increase or decrease your step goal depending on your progress and specific health goals.” 

When setting a daily step goal, Charlotte emphasizes the importance of thinking about your overall goals beyond living a long life. “If you're aiming for overall fitness and health benefits of walking, steps are a great add-on to your workout routine,” she says. “You can absolutely replace one or two workouts with a long walk, but generally, adding steps to your day should be an enhancement to get more movement into your body rather than replacing workouts.”

So while cycling or HIIT workouts probably won’t get you to your daily step goal, they’re still important. You can think of a daily step goal as complementary to the workouts you’re already doing.

Father and son walk together outside

How to Get Your Ideal Amount of Steps in Every Day

While squeezing in a daily workout is a great way to hit your daily step goals, it’s not always realistic (just keep in mind that the Physical Activity Guidelines of America suggest getting in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week!). There are, however, plenty of easy ways to squeeze more steps into your day. 

“Use your lunch break to get steps in,” Charlotte suggests. “Get up from your desk and go out for food. And instead of coming home after work and lying on the sofa on social media, go for a 15-30 minute walk and get groceries or just a cup of tea.”

You can also ask someone to grab coffee with you and take a walk together, and park your car further away in the parking lot, Charlotte says. 

Dr. Cooper suggests taking the stairs over the elevator, getting out daily to walk your dog if you have one, and using a standing desk at work. “Try to set aside a specific period each day when you can walk and be active,” he says. “Setting a reminder in your phone or an event in your calendar are good strategies to help form a habit, keep you accountable, and stick to your routine. “

Setting and Tracking Your Daily Step Goals

Setting a daily step goal is a great way to stay motivated. While 10,000 is a great goal to aim for, it doesn’t have to be yours. “You want to select a number that is challenging yet achievable, and that will keep you engaged without making you feel discouraged,” Dr. Cooper says. “You have to start somewhere, and it’s always OK to further increase or decrease your step goal depending on your progress and specific health goals.” 

Dr. Martin agrees that setting realistic goals is key. “I see patients who may only be getting 1,500 to 2,000 steps in a day, so it wouldn’t be reasonable for me to say, ‘Go get 10,000 steps,’” he says. “So setting initial targets, whether it’s getting another 500 to 1,000 steps per day and figuring out how to do that—maybe it’s taking a walk while on the phone—can make a big difference.” 

As for how to keep track of your goals, “there are hundreds of fitness apps and watches/step counters that can help track your progress. Many of them are free,” Dr. Cooper says. “These are great ways to actively track your daily step count without having to put in any extra work. Many of these devices also have a social component that can encourage accountability and keep you on track to achieve your goals.” 

“I personally have an Apple Watch and love it, but any good smartwatch or band can track your steps, remind you to get up once in a while, and also measure progress," says Charlotte.

If 10,000 steps is a daily step goal that works for you, great. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry too much about it—the most important thing is that you’re moving your body on a regular basis.


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