The results are in from a study of real-world data collected from the wearable devices of 6,042 people in the US – and it seems that taking more steps every day really can reduce your risk of developing certain types of diseases.
Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and sleep apnea are some of the health issues that can be avoided by cranking up the number and intensity of daily steps you take, according to the findings of this latest study.
While previous studies have come to similar conclusions, this is the first piece of research to be based on commercial activity tracking devices, commonly used as part of daily life, and linked to electronic health records (EHRs), in this case as part of the US National Institutes of Health's All of Us research program.
This data provides "new, empiric evidence of activity levels associated with chronic disease risk and suggests that integration of commercial wearables data into the EHR may be valuable to support clinical care," write the researchers in their published paper.
An average of four years of activity per participant was logged, with the sample based on people who wore their own Fitbit for 10 or more hours a day for at least six months.
Daily step counts and intensity (defined as steps per minute) were then referenced against disease incidence within the group and compared with rates of disease in the general population.
The results showed that as steps increased, the risk of most conditions declined. The exception was for hypertension and diabetes – in these two cases, once individuals reached around 8,000 to 9,000 steps per day, the benefit of adding more steps plateaued.
Around 8,200 steps and above seems to be the sweet spot for seriously reducing the risk of conditions including obesity, sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and major depressive disorder.
The researchers also found that overweight people who increased their daily steps from 6,000 to 11,000 were 64 percent less likely to become obese than those who maintained the same daily step count.
While these statistics don't show a direct cause-and-effect relationship (there are plenty of other factors involved too), the association is strong enough to indicate that taking more steps each day, and upping the intensity to a brisker pace, can reduce your risk of disease.
Past studies have monitored physical activity over short periods of time using research-grade devices and looking at health outcomes years or even decades later, whereas this new research was able to analyze years of activity data collected daily from patients' own wearable devices and linked to current diagnostic records.
"Although some fidelity is lost between research-grade and commercial devices, data from the latter is highly generalizable to a large portion of the public who own such devices," write the researchers.
That said, the people involved in the study were relatively young, mostly white, female, and college-educated, who owned Fitbit devices and were, on average, more active than most adults. But the study authors see this as positive.
"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 are now keen to carry out more research using larger and more diverse samples of people, including those with activity levels that more closely mirror the general population,
Based on previous studies, there's a consensus that getting in several thousand steps a day is enough to help you live longer – and even random and sporadic bursts of activity can be beneficial, as well as planned and consistent walking.
The researchers behind the new study think that daily step routines could be included as part of personalized health plans, with consumer wearables and their associated apps good enough to provide around-the-clock monitoring.
"Although validation in a more diverse sample is needed, these findings provide a real-world evidence-base for clinical guidance regarding activity levels that are necessary to reduce disease risk," write the researchers.
The research has been published in Nature Medicine.