Science says your walking goals probably don't have to adhere to this one number.

By Allie Strickler
Woman wearing blue t-shirt and band around her arms with earbuds in her ears exercising and walking outside
Credit: Shutterstock/Supermao

When you hear someone say they're "getting their steps in," what number typically comes to mind?

If your first thought is "10,000," you're definitely not alone. But that number might not be as magical as you think, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Regular physical activity benefits your health. But researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital were curious to see how many steps per day, specifically, are needed for enhanced longevity. (Related: Are You Moving Enough?)

For the study, 17,000 women 45 years old and up wore research-grade fitness trackers for seven days to map their activity levels. Researchers then observed the women's general health habits, diet, weight, height, smoking status, alcohol use, and personal and family medical history, over about four years.

The results were "sort of surprising," study author I-Min Lee, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, told NPR. They showed that, on average, women who took roughly 4,000 steps per day were about 40 percent less likely to die during the four-year follow-up period compared with women who took less than 2,700 steps per day.

What's more, researchers found that the health benefits of walking for women 45 years old and up "leveled off" after about 7,500 steps, according to a press release. In other words, the goal of hitting 10,000 daily steps probably isn't all it's cracked up to be. (Here's what might happen if you walk 30 minutes a day.)

Of course, this study had limitations. For instance, it was an observational study, meaning the researchers can't definitively say whether a higher step count led to lower mortality, or if women in better health logged more steps.

Plus, the study only measured walking in a specific population of older women. In other words, the findings may not apply to everyone. Moreover, the research didn't account for any other types of physical activity that these women might have done, like gardening, swimming, or biking.

Walking Is Worth It—Even If You Can't Log 10,000 Steps a Day

"Walking has benefits for everyone," says Reid Eichelberger, C.S.C.S., head trainer at EverybodyFights Philadelphia. "Physically speaking, just walking alone can improve blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and other health indicators. Mentally, walking can reduce stress [and] help improve sleep quality."

Ten thousand daily steps is mostly an "arbitrary number," explains Eichelberger. "For many people, having a 'daily goal' with a tracker that keeps them honest will help keep them consistent, which is ultimately the difference in a 'magic number' versus an arbitrary number."

Fun fact: The 10,000-steps phenomenon actually became popular as a result of a marketing campaign for a Japanese pedometer that was invented in 1965, called Manpo-kei (which translates to 10,000-step meter), according to The Washington Post. So while there is scientific evidence to support the benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day, it's not a hard-and-fast rule that applies to everyone.

"Setting a challenging goal that is attainable is key," says Eichelberger. "Whether that is a 10-minute walk a day, 5,000 steps, or 20,000 steps, committing to making a daily habit is important." (Related: How to Make Exercise a Habit You Love)

Time to lace up your sneakers and get to it.