Should 15,000 Steps a Day Be Your New Goal?

walking 15000 steps a day

Story at-a-glance -

  • Prolonged sitting is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and early death from all-cause mortality, but the average American spends nearly 10 hours sitting each day
  • Walking is a pattern of movement essential to reducing your risk of disease; research has demonstrated significant improvements in health when you walk approximately 15,000 steps a day
  • Consider using a fitness tracker to reach your walking goals, a standing workstation with a balance board at work and an exercise ball at home to increase movement

By Dr. Mercola

Sitting for too long during the day may increase your risk of death from nearly all health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke. Sitting for eight hours or more each day is associated with a 90 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.1

Unfortunately, the average American spends between nine and 10 hours of their day sitting, and many office workers, such as telecommunications employees, may spend up to 12 hours each day sitting.2

Although exercise is part of the solution to a largely sedentary lifestyle, it cannot counteract the effects of sitting for long periods of time. Sitting at work and then relaxing at your computer or television at home, is associated with a mortality rate similar to that of smoking.3

Although this may be a powerful motivator to sit only when necessary, the habit of chronic sitting may be difficult to overcome.

Walking is an important tool in your arsenal to attain and maintain good health, but I don't think of it as exercise. Instead, walking and movement are essential parts of the human experience your body requires to achieve good health and reduce your risk of disease.

Movement Is as Important as Exercise

The importance of exercise cannot be overstated. Research demonstrates multiple benefits to your physical, mental and emotional health that may also reduce your risk of disease. However, while exercise is vital to your long-term health, so is daily non-exercise movement.

Vigorous exercise cannot counteract the effects prolonged sitting has on your health.4 Prolonged sitting has been linked with significant health conditions regardless of other physical exercise you get during the day.5

Only consistent movement throughout the day can reduce your risk of health conditions triggered by inactivity.

If sitting too long increases your risk of disease, then intermittent movement is the answer for those who are chained to a desk at work. Just standing up every 15 minutes can help offset some of the damaging consequences of chronic sitting.6 Ideally, sit down as little as possible while at work.

What's important to realize is that there is a separate and distinct difference between too much sitting and too little exercise. To date, research has been clear that sitting too long is dangerous, but researchers are now beginning to realize standing alone may be a good alternative.

The U.S. has exercise recommendations, but none for movement, as does Australia, or Colombia where government workers are forced to take a break when software pauses their computer.7

I firmly believe a reasonable goal is to get up once every 15 minutes when you're sitting, to stand, stretch or spend a couple minutes walking. It is difficult to remember to get up when you're engaged in a project, so you may find it helpful to set an alarm on your computer.

It can be challenging to get up from your work, but as you practice standing throughout the day, you'll likely experience less pain in your joints, greater productivity and creativity as blood flow to your brain doesn't slow from being seated, and joints that aren't as stiff at the end of the day.

Research Demonstrates Walking Reduces Risk of Metabolic Disorders

The initial research that made the link between activity and heart disease was published in 1953 by British epidemiologist Dr. Jeremy Morris.8

Considered groundbreaking, it changed the face of physical activity epidemiology and research for the coming decades.9 His work demonstrated not only did exercise reduce the risk of heart attack, but that those who had a heart attack should exercise.

Seventy years later, following further research proving activity reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, scientists have begun looking at just how much activity is necessary to reduce your risk of heart disease without increasing risk of joint pain or injury.

The commonly recommended threshold of walking 10,000 steps, although popular, has not been scientifically validated.10 The new study evaluated the health of postal workers in Glasgow, Scotland.

They compared the health of mail carriers who delivered mail on foot against postal office workers who remained at their desk for the bulk of their work day. The participants were between 40 and 60 years, without any personal history of heart disease.

Participants were weighed, measured and had blood sugar and cholesterol profiles drawn. They wore a sophisticated activity tracker at home and at work. From the tracker, the researchers calculated how many steps were taken each day and how much time was spent seated or on foot.

The researchers found great variations between office workers and mail carriers. As expected, those who spent most of each day in a chair had high body mass indexes, larger waistlines and worse blood sugar levels and cholesterol profiles than those who spent the major part of their day walking.

Even after controlling for factors such as age, family history or night-shift work, those who walked had lower risk profiles for cardiovascular disease.

The researchers were also able to demonstrate that for every hour beyond five hours that participants sat during the day, their risk of developing heart disease increased by two-tenths of a percentage point.

As some Americans may sit for up to 15 hours each day,11 this may equate to a 2 percent increased risk of heart disease, without including other risk factors.

What's the Magic Number?

The idea that sitting for prolonged periods may devastate your health is not news. What this research found was that the more people moved, the more their risk for heart disease was reduced.

In this study, the mail carriers who walked 15,000 steps, or approximately seven miles, had normal body mass indexes, waistlines and metabolic profiles.12

There were some limitations as the researchers were measuring heart disease risk factors and did not follow participants for years to determine who may have actually suffered cardiovascular disease. The study also revealed an association between activity and risk, but was not designed to prove a link.

As the average adult walks between 1,000 and 3,000 steps per day,13 following the recommendation of the study potentially represents a large increase in activity or movement.

However, lead researcher Dr. William Tigbe at the University of Warwick believes it is possible for most. By walking briskly for two hours at a 4-miles-per-hour pace, you may easily achieve 7 to 8 miles per day.

He also suggests that by doing it in smaller chunks of time you also reduce the time you spend sitting. For instance, walking 30 minutes before work, at lunch and after dinner, with a few 10-minute shorter walks during the day, will accomplish the same thing.

Additionally, walking for 30 minutes after meals helps to stabilize your blood sugar level.14 Blood glucose is significantly lower in patients with diabetes after taking a 10-minute walk following a meal, compared to a 30-minute walk at random times during the day. By taking a walk after meals you effectively and simultaneously impact your blood sugar level and your cardiac risk.

Striving to achieve a goal of 15,000 steps each day helps maintain your weight, reduce your risk of disease and improves your productivity and creativity throughout the day.15,16

Grounding Adds Another Benefit to Your Daily Walk

Walking throughout the day may provide other health benefits as well. If you can get outside for one or more of your daily walks, you may have the opportunity to recharge your immune system and fight inflammation through grounding, provided you take off your shoes.

Although a deceptively simple technique, through the act of walking barefoot directly on the Earth, it may be possible to slow the aging process. Highly respected cardiologist and integrated medicine specialist Dr. Stephen Sinatra explains in the film above, "Down to Earth":

"In simple terms, grounding is literally putting your bare feet on the ground. When you do that, you're in contact with the Earth, and mother Earth is endowed with electrons, and these electrons are literally absorbed through your feet. It's like taking handfuls of antioxidants, but you're getting it through your feet."

Humans are electrical beings. Think about when cardiologists measure an EKG, they are measuring the electrical activity in your heart. Or when doctors measure brain waves, they are essentially measuring the movement of electricity through your brain. As an electrical being, your body needs to be "recharged" by electrons from the Earth to maintain good health.

When you walk barefoot on the ground your body absorbs large amounts of negative electrons through your feet. In a world where you are consistently bombarded with free radical stress from toxins, pollution, pesticides, processed foods and radiation, your body needs to replenish negative electrons to reduce inflammation.

Oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species cause disease and inflammation. Grounding gives you free and easy access to an abundant supply of antioxidant-rich, free radical-busting electrons when you make the effort to stay grounded.

This Time Multitasking Is Efficient

Multitasking is not an effective way to stay productive as your brain cannot fully concentrate on more than one task at a time without compromise.17 However, you may be able to effectively multitask during your daily walking.

As discussed above, walking after meals stabilizes your blood sugar and by walking barefoot you may increase absorption of antioxidant free radicals from the Earth. As you see in the video above, while taking my walks along the beach, I carry a Kindle. In the past several years I've been able to read a phenomenal number of books during my walks.

Walking outside also allows you to attain sensible sun exposure to increase your vitamin D levels naturally. Sun exposure also improves your mood, reduces the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, improves sleep quality by synchronizing biorhythms and regulating melatonin, and helps regulate your body temperature.18

Granted, walking outside helps you achieve the most benefits for your health, but when weather or time doesn't permit, you may achieve your movement goals inside. Using a standing desk or a sit-to-stand desk is a reasonable way of increasing your movement. Treadmill desks may increase the number of steps you take, but they also increase your risk of being included in the more than 24,000 who are treated for treadmill-related injuries every year.19

A far better option to being distracted on a treadmill desk is a standing desk, which is associated with boosting heart rate, HDL (good) cholesterol levels and after three months of use, weight loss.20 In combination with a standing workstation you may also consider a balance board, which improves muscle activity as your body works to stay balanced while standing.

Although standing is beneficial, standing still all day doesn't do your body any favors. Remaining in one place for a long period increases compression on your lower spine. A balance board may help reduce stress and increase muscle action while standing. Use a standing workstation to alternate between sitting and standing, aiming to sit for no more than three hours all day. You may have to work up to this as it is tiring if you aren't used to being on your feet all day.

More Ways to Give Up Being Sedentary

Committing to sitting less and moving more will take a bit of getting used to. Your body was designed to move, and you'll likely find it feels more natural over time than does sitting for long periods. While moving at work is important, also consider the time you spend at home in front of the computer or television. An option at home is using a Swiss ball for a chair, as it keeps you moving and balancing while sitting. Consider using it and bouncing while watching television.

Consider purchasing a wearable fitness tracker to keep you accountable for your daily step goals. A tracker may also give you feedback on the quality of your sleep patterns, also important to your overall health.

Wear your fitness tracker for a week to get a baseline of how much you usually move, and then set reasonable goals you can increase each week until you reach 15,000 steps a day, which should be over and above any other exercise. Other simple ways of increasing your physical movement during the day include:

  • Commit to drinking 8 ounces of water every hour at work. Keep the water away from your desk. You'll stay hydrated, get up for water and will have to walk to visit the bathroom as well.
  • Organize your office so you have to get up to reach files, the telephone, printer or any other frequently used office equipment.
  • While sitting, keep muscles activated and engaged by maintaining proper posture. This reduces back pain and muscle fatigue during the day. Consider an upright chair without armrests or cushions. The chair will force you to sit upright and shift your weight more frequently than a cushioned chair.
  • Set a timer as a reminder to stand and move for at least two minutes every 30 minutes. You may walk, stand, stretch or to a few simple exercises by your desk. For an extensive list of videos demonstrating desk exercises, see my previous article, "Intermittent Movement Benefits Your Health. Here's How to Get More of It into Your Work Day."
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