Steps are good for your heart

20 July 2023

Walking is a beneficial activity for heart health, but how many steps per day are needed to achieve a positive effect on the cardiovascular system? For a long time, the threshold of 10,000 steps per day (about 8 kilometres) was considered by the World Health Organisation to be the minimum value to be reached in order to achieve benefits. However, this threshold is not supported by concrete scientific evidence, but originated from a marketing campaign in Japan in 1994. The company Yamasa Tokei launched a device called ‘Manpo-Kei’, the ‘10,000-step counter’, which provided a precise number of steps to be reached.

Subsequently, the validity of 10,000 steps as a ‘minimum threshold’ for health benefits has been debated, as this number does not take into account the different health needs and goals of each individual. Setting a ‘fixed’ threshold might discourage some people from adopting a physical activity regime.

However, recent research has provided more information on how much walking benefits the heart. A recent 2023 meta-analysis published in ‘Circulation‘, called ‘Prospective association of daily steps with cardiovascular disease: a harmonised meta-analysis‘, analysed 8 prospective studies, involving a total of 20,152 adults with an average age of 63 years (52% of whom were women) followed for an average duration of 6 years. The study examined the relationship between daily steps and the risk of cardiovascular events, such as fatal and non-fatal coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure.

The data obtained were divided into quartiles of steps per day and the associations with cardiovascular events were examined using statistical analysis. Age was divided into 2 groups: those under 60 and those over 60. The results showed a median daily step rate of 4,323 for older adults and 6,911 for younger adults. Furthermore, a significant difference in the associations between the number of steps per day and cardiovascular events was documented between the two age groups.

For the elderly, the risk of cardiovascular events (Hazard Ratio) decreased progressively as the number of steps per day increased. For young adults, on the other hand, the association between the number of steps per day and the risk of cardiovascular events was not as pronounced. In summary, the meta-analysis showed that for adults over 60 years of age, a higher number of steps per day is associated with a progressively lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Even achieving between 6,000 and 9,000 steps per day can lead to a significant benefit, with a 40%-50% lower risk compared to those who only take 2,000 steps per day.

These new findings emphasise that there is no universal ideal number of steps for everyone and that setting a single threshold of steps per day may not be appropriate for all individuals. It is important to consider the specific needs and capabilities of each individual when planning a physical activity programme, making it as personalised and realistic as possible. Tailoring goals to each individual’s ability and age can be an effective strategy to encourage a positive change towards an active and heart-healthy lifestyle.

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