While the idea of getting 10,000 steps a day is bandied about as a good walking goal, that can be intimidating to some people, depending on how fit they are.
Now, new research in adults between the ages of 70 and 90 finds that a much smaller number of steps can make a difference in heart health.
It's possible, according to researchers, that just 3,000 steps a day has benefits for heart health, and adding increments of just 500 more steps can also make a big difference.
“Walking, I think, is just such a great activity that we can encourage people to do,” said study author Erin Dooley, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama's School of Public Health. “Getting up throughout the day and walking a little bit, even if it's just around your house, any type of walking is helpful and beneficial.”
Her team used data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study (ARIC) for this new study, with a sample of 452 adults who wore activity trackers on their waist for a few days and were then followed for about 3 1/2 years.
The study grouped participants based on the number of steps they averaged. Those who were least active were getting about 2,000 steps. Those who were most active got about 4,500 steps.
“That really showed quite a big difference in cardiovascular disease risk,” Dooley said. “It was really about 3,000 steps where we started seeing this measurable difference in lower risk.”
Dooley said she wanted to focus on this age range because aging is a dynamic process.
“We thought it was really important to look at steps in the older end of the spectrum of age,” she said.
Participants did need to meet certain health and fitness criteria, so they may have been a slightly healthier population, Dooley noted.
About 7.5% of study participants experienced a cardiovascular event, such as heart disease, stroke or heart failure, during the study period.
Adults who had 4,500 daily steps had a 77% lower risk of having a cardiovascular event than those who took fewer than 2,000 steps daily.
An additional 500 steps -- which is just one-quarter of a mile -- was associated with a 14% lower risk of heart disease, stroke or heart failure.
People do not need to get all of their steps at once. Any steps throughout the day count, Dooley said.
“Physical activity is really important for all of the kind of risk factors associated with heart health," she said. "It's reducing your blood sugar. It helps control your blood pressure. It can help maintain or even help you lose weight and walking's also great for stress reduction."
For seniors, low-impact activity is also important for bone health, Dooley noted.
For someone wondering where to start, she suggests simply starting with getting 500 more steps.
Dooley said she didn't want to diminish the importance of higher intensity physical activity, but added that encouraging small increases in the number of daily steps could have significant benefits.
The findings were presented Thursday at an American Heart Association meeting, in Boston. Findings presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
“I think it's a terrific study. It's always nice to have a study that confirms our suspicions that the more you move, the better you're going to do,” said Dr. Michelle Kittleson, a cardiologist in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Kittleson was not involved in the study.
In an observational study, it can be harder to know whether the exact benefits found will be the same for everyone, but there isn't any harm in getting more movement, Kittleson said.
“The way I tend to phrase it to the patient sitting in front of me in clinic is, every little bit counts. How can it not? So, start where you can and you'll only feel better, you won't feel worse," she said. "And you'll feel even better about yourself because you're doing something. You're empowered to try to make yourself better."
Regular exercise can also be a way to check in with your heart, Kittleson said. If you notice problems, you can ask your doctor about them. If you don't exercise, you're not doing that regular check-in with your body.
Exercise, of course, comes with the physical benefit of improving your conditioning, Kittleson said. It also has mental benefits, such as reducing anxiety.
In addition to staying active, Kittleson said the other most important step people can take for their heart health is assessing and managing heart risk factors with the help of their doctor. This includes controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes, along with not smoking.
The American Heart Association also recommends eating healthy food, getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy weight.
The researchers noted that more study will be needed to determine if meeting a higher daily step count prevents or delays cardiovascular disease, or if having a lower count is actually an indicator of underlying disease.
The study was not able to capture other types of exercise that participants may have been doing, such as cycling or swimming.
The American Heart Association has more on preventing heart disease at any age.
SOURCES: Erin Dooley, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham; Michelle Kittleson, MD, cardiologist, Smidt Heart Institute, Cedars-Sinai, Los Angeles; March 2, 2023, presentation, American Heart Association's Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiovascular Health Scientific Sessions, Boston