What’s the magic number of steps to keep weight off? Here’s what a new study says

Taking 8,600 steps a day will prevent weight gain in adults, while already overweight adults can halve their odds of becoming obese by adding an additional 2,400 steps — that’s 11,000 steps a day, according to new research.

Studies show the average person gains between 1 and 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilograms) each year from young adulthood through middle age, slowly leading to an unhealthy weight and even obesity over time.

“People really can reduce their risk of obesity by walking more,” said study author Dr. Evan Brittain, associate professor in the division of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

The new study also found key benefits for chronic diseases and conditions: “Diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, diabetes, depression, and GERD showed benefit with higher steps,” Brittain said in an email.

“The relationship with hypertension and diabetes plateaued after about 8,000 to 9,000 steps but the others were linear, meaning higher steps continued to reduce risk,” he said. “I would say that the take home messages are that more steps are better.”

It’s yet another study illustrating the powerful impact that walking and other forms of exercise have on our health. In fact, if you get up and move for 21.43 minutes each day of the week, you cut your risk of dying from all causes by one-third, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Current physical activity recommendations for adults are 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, dancing, bicycling, doubles tennis and water aerobics, and two days of muscle-strengthening activity each week.

“Physical activity is just absolutely magnificent,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, told CNN in an earlier interview.

“And when if you blend that with eating a more plant-based diet, de-stressing, sleeping enough and connecting with others — that’s your magic recipe,” Freeman said. “It’s the fountain of youth, if you will.”

<p><span>Activity trackers allow researchers to get more accurate data that can be compared with health records.</span></p>

ricka_kinamoto/Adobe Stock

Activity trackers allow researchers to get more accurate data that can be compared with health records.

Lower obesity risk with more steps

The study analyzed an average of four years of activity and health data from more than 6,000 participants in the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program, dedicated to research on ways to develop individualized health care.

Participants in the study, published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, wore activity trackers at least 10 hours a day and allowed researchers access to their electronic health records over multiple years.

“Our study had an average of 4 years of continuous activity monitoring. So, we were able to account for the totality of activity between when monitoring started and when a disease was diagnosed, which is a major advantage because we didn’t have to make assumptions about activity over time, unlike all prior studies,” Brittain said.

People in the study ranged in age from 41 to 67 and had body mass index levels from 24.3, which is considered in the healthy weight range, to 32.9, which is considered obese.

Researchers found that people who walked 4 miles a day — about 8,200 steps — were less likely to become obese or suffer from sleep apnea, acid reflux and major depressive disorder. Sleep apnea and acid reflux respond well to weight loss, which can reduce pressure on the throat and stomach, while exercise is a cornerstone treatment for depression.

The study also found that overweight participants (those with BMIs from 25 to 29) cut their risk of becoming obese by half if they increased their steps to 11,000 steps a day. In fact, “this increase in step counts resulted in a 50% reduction in cumulative incidence of obesity at 5 years,” the study found.

Applying the data to a specific example, the authors said individuals with BMIs of 28 could lower their risk of obesity 64% by increasing steps from about 6,000 to 11,000 steps per day.

Recent studies on benefits of steps

The new research echoes results from a recent study in Spain in which researchers found health benefits rose with every step until about 10,000 steps, when the effects began to fade. Counting steps may be especially important for people who do unstructured, unplanned physical activity such as housework, gardening and walking dogs.

“Notably, we detected an association between incidental steps (steps taken to go about daily life) and a lower risk of both cancer and heart disease,” study coauthor Borja del Pozo Cruz told CNN in an earlier interview. Del Pozo Cruz is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and senior researcher in health sciences for the University of Cadiz in Spain.

The same research team also recently published a similar study that found walking 10,000 steps a day lowered the risk for dementia by 50%; the risk decreased by 25% with as few as 3,800 steps a day.

However, if walking occurred at a brisk pace of 112 steps a minute for 30 minutes, it maximized risk reduction, leading to a 62% reduction in dementia risk. The 30 minutes of fast-paced walking didn’t have to occur all at once either — it could be spread out over the day.

Researchers found the association between peak 30-minute steps and risk reduction to be dependent on the disease studied: There was a 62% reduction for dementia, an 80% decline for cardiovascular disease and death, and about a 20% drop in risk for cancer.

The new study also found an association between step intensity and health benefits as well, “although the relationships were less consistent than with step counts,” researchers said.

A major limitation of all studies using step trackers is that people who wear them tend to be more active and healthier than the norm, the researchers said. “Yet the fact that we were able to detect robust associations between steps and incident disease in this active sample suggests even stronger associations may exist in a more sedentary population,” they said.