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Step Up Your Game

Adding steps to your day could add years to your life

By Steven Nakano, MSPT, physical therapy, The Portland Clinic.

How many steps did you walk today? Most of us can answer that question with a quick glance at our phone’s step counter.

How many steps should you walk each day? That number has been a little harder to pinpoint, but a recently published study may have found the answer. If your goal is a longer life, the study suggests, 7,000 may be the magic number.

The study followed 2,110 middle-aged adults for a mean of 10.8 years and found that those who took at least 7,000 steps per day had a 50-70% lower risk of premature death than people who walked less (JAMA Network, Sept. 2021). Benefits continued to rise moderately after that, but leveled out at 10,000. If you’ve been needing some motivation to step up your walks, this is it. And summer is a great time to start.

How to get more steps in

To make your walking program work for the long haul, begin with these steps:

  • Start slowly. The study found that the benefits accrued regardless of the intensity of the walk. A step is a step. They all count.
  • Set achievable goals. Start with a very small goal, even if it seems ridiculously easy. Don’t increase it until you meet it. Then, step it up gradually,
    one success at a time.
  • Schedule it. Make a walking schedule and stick to it. You wouldn’t miss a health care appointment, so don’t miss your walk.
  • Make your day harder. Park farther away, break up sitting with a few laps around the house, and visit the website, make your day harder for more ideas on how to sneak in extra steps and make small gains throughout the day.
  • Stay steady. In the beginning, stick with firm, level surfaces. You can add hills and uneven surfaces as you gain endurance.
  • Don’t binge. Instead of sitting for long periods and then binge walking, keep a steady diet of movement throughout the day.
  • Stay motivated. Use a walking or fitness app to help guide and motivate you. Log your daily distance and keep a running total to show how far you’ve come.
How to get more out of your steps

If you’re already hitting that 7,000-step sweet spot regularly, here are a few ways to get more out of your steps:

  • Try a change of pace. While a step is a step, varying your pacer and adding more intensity is good for your cardiovascular health and endurance.
  • Try a change of place. New terrain that adds elevation, uneven surfaces, stairs, or trails can improve your balance and help keep your walks fresh.
  • Switch up your style. To bump up your heart rate, switch to sideways steps or skipping for a few minutes, or wear light ankle weights or a backpack.
  • Cross-train. Another study found similar longevity benefits to engaging in 30-45 minutes of any sport on a regular basis (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dec. 2021). It doesn’t always have to be walking. Do what you enjoy. Just move.
Either way: listen to your body

While you may have a goal in mind, your muscles and joints may have other ideas. Push yourself gently and often, but don’t overdo it. It’s OK to feel low-level discomfort (in the 3-4 out of 10 range), but it should resolve itself in a few hours. IF it takes more than a day to recover, then start over with a lower goal.

Regular activity can help you live not just longer, but better. One of my favorite benefits is the physiologic calming effect of going for a walk. Breathing fresh air, touching the earth and hearing the sounds of nature are positive sensory experiences that soothe and heal on every level.

If you haven’t exercised in a while, or if a medical condition makes it challenging, talk with your health care provider. The Portland Clinic’s Physical Therapy team is here to provide guidance and to help make exercise a custom fit for you.