Maximpact Blog

Walking to Live and Loving to Walk

Pedestrians walking on La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain. April 16, 2019 (Photo by Mike Acler, Barcelona Tourist Cards) Creative Commons licence via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact

LODZ, Poland, August 12, 2023 ( Sustainability News) – Walk more to live longer, a team of European scientists says after conducting a new comprehensive study of how plain, simple walking benefits our health. The number of steps we should walk every day to start seeing these benefits is lower than previously thought, according to the latest, largest analysis ever to investigate this issue. The new analysis of 226,889 people from 17 different studies across the world has shown that the more we walk, the greater the health benefits. 

World Health Organization data shows that insufficient physical activity is the fourth most frequent cause of death in the world, with 3.2 million deaths a year related to physical inactivity. 

The study, published in the “European Journal of Preventive Cardiology,” on August 9 found that walking at least 3,967 steps a day started to reduce the risk of dying from any cause, and just 2,337 steps a day reduced the risk of dying from diseases of the heart and blood vessels, cardiovascular disease.

The average step length for males is 2.6 feet (.79 meters) so 4,000 steps equals 1.97 miles (3.17km). The average step length for females is 2.2 feet (.67 meters) so 4,000 steps equals 1.67 miles (2.7km).

The risk of dying from any cause, including cardiovascular disease, decreases with every 500 to 1,000 extra steps we walk. An increase of 1,000 steps a day was associated with a 15 percent reduction in the risk of dying from any cause, and an increase of 500 steps a day was linked with a seven percent reduction in dying from cardiovascular disease.

Led by Maciej Banach, MD, PhD, professor of cardiology at the Medical University of Lodz, Poland, and adjunct professor at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the scientists found that even if people walked as many as 20,000 steps a day, the health benefits continued to increase. They have not yet found an upper limit.

“Our study confirms that the more you walk, the better,” says Professor Banach. “We found that this applied to both men and women, irrespective of age, and irrespective of whether you live in a temperate, sub-tropical or sub-polar region of the world, or a region with a mixture of climates.”

“In addition, our analysis indicates that as little as 4,000 steps a day are needed to significantly reduce deaths from any cause, and even fewer to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease,” said Professor Banach, Secretary of the European Atherosclerosis Society. Dr. Banach has also served as a former undersecretary of state at Poland’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education and as a president of the Polish Mother’s Memorial Hospital – Research Institute.

Emirati men walk through Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. undated (Photo courtesy Holidify) Posted for media use

He says there is strong evidence that a sedentary lifestyle may contribute to an increase in cardiovascular disease and a shorter life. Studies have shown that insufficient physical activity affects more than a quarter of the world’s population. 

Nearly a third of all women – 32 percent compared with 23 percent of men, do not undertake a sufficient amount of physical activity, the studies show. More than a third of people in higher income countries  – 37 percent compared to 16 percent of people in low-income countries – get enough physical activity, the studies show.

The COVID-19 pandemic also resulted in a reduction in physical activity, and activity levels have not recovered from it two years on.

The study’s senior author, Dr. Ibadete Bytyçi from the University Clinical Centre of Kosovo in Pristina, says, “Until now, it’s not been clear what is the optimal number of steps, both in terms of the cut-off points over which we can start to see health benefits, and the upper limit, if any, and the role this plays in people’s health.” 

Still, he emphasized that there were limited data available on step counts up to 20,000 a day, and “so these results need to be confirmed in larger groups of people,” Dr. Bytyçi said.

This meta-analysis is the first not only to assess the effect of walking up to 20,000 steps a day, but also the first to look at whether there are any differences in the effects of walking depending on age, sex, or where in the world people live.

The studies analyzed by the researchers followed up participants for a average of seven years. The average age of participants was 64, and 49 percent of them were female.

In people aged 60 years or older, the size of the reduction in risk of death was a little smaller than that seen in people aged younger than 60 years. In the older adults, there was a 42 percent reduction in risk seen in those who walked between 6,000 and 10,000 steps a day, while there was a 49 percent reduction in risk in younger adults who walked between 7,000 and 13,000 steps a day.

Professor Banach says, “In a world where we have more and more advanced drugs to target specific conditions such as cardiovascular disease, I believe we should always emphasise that lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, which was a main hero of our analysis, might be at least as, or even more effective in reducing cardiovascular risk and prolonging lives.”

“We still need good studies to investigate whether these benefits may exist for intensive types of exertion, such as marathon running and iron man challenges, and in different populations of different ages, and with different associated health problems. However, it seems that, as with pharmacological treatments, we should always think about personalizing lifestyle changes,” he advised.

Strengths of the meta-analysis include its size and the fact that it was not restricted to looking at studies limited to a maximum of 16,000 steps a day. 

But it was an observational study and therefore limited. It cannot be used to prove that increased step counts cause the reduction in the risk of death, only that there is an association. 

The impact of step counts was not tested on people with different diseases; all the participants were generally healthy when they entered the studies analyzed. The researchers were not able to account for differences in race and socioeconomic status, and the methods for counting steps were not identical in all the studies included in the analysis.

Walkers and Cyclists Help Curb Climate Change

Mark Watts, executive director of C40 Cities, a network of mayors and their cities working to confront the climate crisis, has a quick and easy answer to the question “what is the single most important thing that mayors can do to tackle climate change?”

His answer? “Invest in walking and cycling. There is no other policy that is as effective at rapidly reducing carbon emissions, improving public health, and achieving greater equity and prosperity for all urban residents.”

“Car-centric cities are also centres of pollution and ill-health,” writes Watts on the C40 Cities website. “We know that we must start rapidly cutting carbon emissions – the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms yet again that emissions need to fall immediately. Meanwhile, public health is diminished by poor air quality, death and injury from road traffic collisions, along with the physical inactivity that results from car-dependent lifestyles.”

“A global shift away from cars to more active forms of travel is exactly what the world needs right now,” writes Watts. “Replacing a trip by car with active travel is a highly effective way to cut emissions quickly.”

Investing in walking and cycling also means that those who do not own cars will see an improved quality of life and greater access to economic opportunities, he points out.

For these reasons, 36 cities have signed up to the C40 Green and Healthy Streets Declaration since 2017, putting people and planet at the heart of urban transport planning. These cities have committed, among other things, to reducing the number of polluting vehicles on their streets and increasing rates of walking and cycling.

Five years on, Barcelona is implementing more than 300 measures to ensure that, by 2024, more than 80 percent of all trips in the city will be made by walking, cycling or public transport. Barcelona is putting in additional bike lanes and a project to convert one million square metres of pavement and road space into places that can support more sustainable and healthy neighborhoods. 

Auckland Transport, in New Zealand, has committed to a fleet of all electric vehicles from 2025. And Quito, Ecuador will require all bus contracts to operate only electric bus fleets after 2025.

Of the signatory cities, 14 have restrictions on high-polluting vehicles that cover a major part of the city, while 15 cities are reallocating road space from cars to active and sustainable modes of transport, reducing car use, and making alternatives such as walking safer and more appealing.

Multiple websites offer advice on how to make walking more appealing. Here are a few suggestions: take photographs, observe natural events and creatures, buy some new gear, find a walking friend, set a goal and track progress, or listen to podcasts, music or audiobooks. And don’t forget to count your steps!