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Benefits of Walking: Does Step Count Matter?

Walking is often underrated as a form of exercise, yet it offers numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. It's accessible, requires no special equipment, and can be easily integrated into daily routines. This blog will explore the benefits of walking, drawing from scientific research and expert opinions.

June 4, 2024

Reviewed by: Dr Thom Phillips

General wellbeing

A group of people walking through the woods to increase their step count
In this article:

How Many Steps Should You Do?

A study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in August 2023, found a direct link between step count and risk of early death[1]. The study also found a link between step count and reduced risk of heart disease.

Researchers found that the minimum amount of steps you need to do a day to decrease your risk is just 3,867. However, they also noted that every 1,000 steps over this decreased the risk of early death by 15% (up to 20,000 steps).

So, more is better, but whether you’re doing 3,867 or hitting 10,000 steps a day, you’ll be improving your health just by walking.

The average person takes about 2,100 steps to walk a mile and the average pace is 3mph. So, a 2-mile walk would get you over the minimum steps and would only take 40 minutes – perfect for a lunch break or after-work walk.

For increased intensity, you could aim to finish the walk in under 30 minutes.

Thom Phillips

"‘As the research shows it doesn't take a huge number of steps to get some health and longevity benefits from walking. It also doesn't really matter where you do your steps either, back and forth in the garden, up and down the stairs are just as good as hiking to your local beauty spot. The important thing is little and often to build that habit.’"

Dr Thom Phillips

11 Ways Walking Makes You Healthier

  1. Cardiovascular Health

    Walking helps improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Regular walking can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke[1].

  2. Weight Management

    Consistent walking burns calories, which aids in weight management and can help prevent obesity. It boosts metabolism and helps in maintaining a healthy weight.
    Harvard researchers analysed 32 genes linked to obesity in over 12,000 individuals to assess their impact on body weight. The study revealed that participants who walked briskly for about an hour daily experienced a 50% reduction in the influence of these genes.

  3. Muscle and Joint Health

    Walking strengthens muscles, particularly in the legs, and enhances joint mobility. It's beneficial for preventing and managing conditions like arthritis by lubricating the joints and strengthening the muscles around them.

  4. Bone Density

    Weight-bearing exercises, including walking, promote bone health and can help prevent osteoporosis and fractures by increasing bone density. Strength training or resistance training is another great way to strengthen bones and muscles.

  5. Diabetes Management

    Walking improves blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity, which is particularly beneficial for people with Type 2 diabetes. It helps manage and even prevent diabetes, alongside a healthy, balanced diet.

  6. Stress Reduction

    Walking, especially outdoors, reduces stress and anxiety levels. It releases endorphins, the body's natural mood lifters, which can help combat depression and improve overall emotional well-being.

  7. Cognitive Function

    Walking boosts cognitive function and can help protect against cognitive decline as we age. It's linked to better memory, attention, and creativity.

  8. Controls Sweet Cravings

    Research from the University of Exeter indicates that a 15-minute walk can diminish chocolate cravings and lower consumption of chocolate in stressful situations[2]. Additional studies confirm that walking helps reduce cravings for various sugary snacks.

  9. Lowers Breast Cancer Risk

    Physical activity is known to decrease the risk of breast cancer. An American Cancer Society study focusing on walking found that women who walked seven or more hours per week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer compared to those who walked three hours or less weekly[3]. This protective effect was observed even in women with risk factors like being overweight or using hormone supplements.

  10. Alleviates Joint Pain

    Several studies have demonstrated that walking can reduce arthritis-related pain and potentially prevent arthritis from developing. Walking five to six miles a week helps protect joints, particularly the knees and hips, by lubricating them and strengthening supporting muscles.

  11. Enhances Immune Function

    Walking can boost your immunity during cold and flu season. A study involving over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less[4]. Additionally, if they did fall ill, their symptoms were milder and the duration of illness was shorter.

Tips for Incorporating Getting More Steps

Set Realistic Goals

Start with small, achievable goals like a 10-minute walk every day and gradually increase the duration and intensity.

This is especially important if you’re just starting your fitness journey or are recovering from an illness.

Setting yourself an ambitious goal might feel motivating at the start, but you may end up pushing yourself too hard to achieve it (which can end up causing an injury or fatigue) or cause yourself to lose motivation when you don’t reach the goal.

Work your way up to more ambitious goals as you get fitter and more comfortable with walking for longer distances or periods of time.

Add Walking To Your Daily Routine

One of the easiest ways to increase your steps and fitness is to choose to walk instead of driving for short distances, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and schedule regular walking breaks during work hours.

Need to make a call? Instead of sitting at your desk or on the sofa, chat as you walk up and down the street or around the park.

Make it Enjoyable

Listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while walking can help make the time pass much quicker and can even take your mind off of it completely. This is really helpful when you’re feeling tired or don’t have the motivation.

Explore different routes to keep the experience interesting, too.

Track Your Progress

Use a smartphone or smartwatch to track your steps and progress, which can be motivating and help set future goals.

Many step-tracking apps or smart watches will give you a rewarding pop-up when you reach your step goal for the day, or even surpass it.

In May 2024, we did a Forth Walking Challenge for a week. Everyone tracked their steps each day with the main goal of increasing step count but with the added element of friendly competition.

You might find a comparing your step count with your family and friends a healthy motivator to increasing your daily steps. Just don’t forget to focus on your goals and fitness, and not theirs!

How Important Is Intensity?

When it comes to intensity, it’s really up to you.

Some days you want a relaxing walk and others you may want to push yourself a bit more.

Listen to your body and decide what is best on a day-by-day basis.

If you can, track your heart rate while you walk. This will tell you how hard your heart has to work as you walk and allow you to target specific heart rate zones.

For example, zone 2 is the best zone for fat burning and might be the easiest zone to stay in whilst walking.

Heart rate zones are:

  • Zone 1 (Very Light): 50-60% of maximum heart rate. This is a low-intensity zone, ideal for warm-ups, cool-downs, and recovery. It’s comfortable and easy, suitable for improving overall health and aiding in recovery.
  • Zone 2 (Light): 60-70% of maximum heart rate. This moderate-intensity zone allows you to maintain a conversation and is excellent for building endurance and improving the body’s efficiency in burning fat.
  • Zone 3 (Moderate): 70-80% of maximum heart rate. This zone increases aerobic capacity and improves cardiovascular fitness. It involves a moderate level of effort where talking becomes more difficult, but it’s sustainable for longer durations.
  • Zone 4 (Hard): 80-90% of maximum heart rate. This high-intensity zone enhances maximum performance and fitness levels. It involves vigorous effort, with heavy breathing and limited ability to talk, suitable for short bursts and interval training.
  • Zone 5 (Maximum): 90-100% of maximum heart rate. This is the highest intensity level, used for short, all-out efforts like sprints. It’s not sustainable for long periods and is used to build speed and power.

This information has been medically reviewed by Dr Thom Phillips

Thom works in NHS general practice and has a decade of experience working in both male and female elite sport. He has a background in exercise physiology and has published research into fatigue biomarkers.

Dr Thom Phillips

Dr Thom Phillips

Head of Clinical Services