It's not just the number of steps you take in a day that matter. It's also the pace at which you take them, according to new research.
In nearly 80,000 adults with wearable trackers – one of the largest analyses to date – researchers found those who walk at a faster pace also show signs of improved health outcomes.
The 10,000-step daily target has become a global sensation in recent years, yet it's based on surprisingly little evidence. In the 1960s, a Japanese company selling step counters pulled the number out of thin air to get people to buy their product.
In recent years, scientists have tried to test the goal to see if the popular health suggestion is actually up to snuff. Some research has found that after about 6,000 steps, the health benefits of daily walking gradually peter out. Other research, however, suggests every extra step counts.
Now, there's another factor to consider: your speed.
In two new studies of nearly 78,500 participants a piece, researchers in the United Kingdom have shown strong evidence that a person's walking pace matters.
Those who regularly walked at a faster pace or with higher intensity at times throughout the day showed a lower risk of dementia onset as well as a lower risk of all-cause mortality, cancer and cardiovascular disease compared to those who walked slower.
In the dementia study, researchers found the optimal number for intensity in their participant group was 112 steps per minute on average for 30 (not necessarily consecutive) minutes each day.
"Step count is easily understood and widely used by the public to track activity levels thanks to the growing popularity of fitness trackers and apps, but rarely do people think about the pace of their steps," says physiologist Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney.
"Findings from these studies could inform the first formal step-based physical activity guidelines and help develop effective public health programs aimed at preventing chronic disease."
The results come from two population-based studies that took place over two years. Each relied on adult participants between 40 and 79 years of age, but one focused on cancer and cardiovascular disease, while the other focused on dementia. Seven years later, these cohorts were checked up on again.
Both studies are purely observational, which means they can't tell us about cause or effect. That said, these are some of the first and largest studies to analyze walking speed in relation to a person's health outcomes.
Similar to previous studies, the findings from both papers suggest that the more steps a person takes in a day, the better it is for their health outcomes.
Even better, there doesn't appear to be a minimum number of steps a person needs to take or a minimum pace they need to set to reap these benefits.
For every 2,000 steps, the authors found a lowered risk of premature death, reaching up to 11 percent.
In the dementia study, the 'sweet spot' or the optimal daily dose of walking sat at around 9,800 steps. At this threshold, the risk of dementia appears to be cut in half.
Even a slow walker can achieve these benefits, researchers say, but fast walkers could give their brains an even bigger health boost.
"The size and scope of these studies using wrist-worn trackers makes it the most robust evidence to date suggesting that 10,000 steps a day is the sweet spot for health benefits and walking faster is associated with additional benefits," says Matthew Ahmadi, who studies physical activity at the University of Sydney.
"Going forward more research with longer-term use of trackers will shed more light on the health benefits associated with certain levels and intensity of daily stepping."
The studies were published in JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Neurology.