Walking this number of steps a day only a few days a week has major health benefits

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As the June Start TODAY challenge kicks off, you may be wondering how much you need to walk in order to see health benefits. For beginners, it's more than reasonable to start small and try to build up your walking habit, as is the goal of the June challenge. But for walkers ready to make the most of their exercise, what should your daily step count goal be, and how often do you need to hit it?

Before you spend your evening walking laps around your home, know that new research shows that you don't necessarily have to hit your step goal every single day to improve your health. A new study found that walking 8,000 steps just once or twice per week can be enough to significantly reduce the risk of death over 10 years.

The inspiration for the study was people who only have time to walk as exercise on the weekend, study co-author Dr. Kosuke Inoue, a chronic disease epidemiologist at Kyoto University in Japan, tells TODAY.com.

"Although recent studies have shown that more daily steps were associated with a steady decline in all-cause and cardiovascular mortality risk up to approximately 8,000 daily steps, we realized that evidence is lacking about the health benefits of walking intensively only a few days a week," he explained.

For the study, published this week in JAMA Network Open, researchers used data previously collected for the 2005 and 2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. These long-running nationally representative surveys are conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers included 3,101 participants for whom the surveys had accelerometer data that tracked their daily steps for one week, as well as mortality data for at least 10 years. The participants' average age was 50, about half were women, and about half were white.

Their results showed that participants who walked at least 8,000 steps (about 4 miles) one or two days per week were 15% less likely to die within 10 years. There were 75 deaths out of 532 participants who walked at least 8,000 steps only one or two days per week. And there were 107 deaths among 1,937 participants walking 8,000 steps three or more days per week.

But the benefits plateaued after walking at least 8,000 steps three days per week, meaning those who walked that much for four or more days didn't see any further reductions in mortality risk.

And it didn't have to be 8,000 steps exactly: Researchers saw the same benefits, in general, when participants walked anywhere between 6,000 to 10,000 steps.

The participants who took 8,000 or more steps during the week were also more likely to have never smoked, to not have obesity, to not have mobility limitations and to not have other conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension. And, the authors note, participants' steps were only measured for one week at baseline, so their walking habits may have changed during the following decade.

So it's possible that the people who were able to walk that many steps that frequently were less likely to die within 10 years for reasons unrelated to walking, such as medication adherence, smoking status of family members, genetics, et cetera, Inoue said.

Although the study has its limitations, Inoue explained that the findings are important "given that a lack of time is one of the major barriers to exercise in modern society." They suggest "that for individuals who face difficulties in exercising regularly ... achieving recommended daily steps only a couple of days per week may have meaningful health benefits," he said. "Of course, our findings should not discourage walking more days for those who can, though."

Finding the right form of exercise for you

Experts generally agree that regular walking can be great exercise and can have benefits for body and mind — and you don't necessarily have to hit that 10,000 steps goal to get those, as TODAY.com explained previously.

In fact, Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, tells TODAY.com that the 10,000 steps goal actually comes from an ad campaign for an early pedometer ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, so it's "completely fabricated" goal, he says.

For people who don't enjoy other forms of fitness, walking can be a great way to keep moving. For those who do partake in more intense forms of exercise, walking can also be a low-impact way to get some movement in on a rest day. And regardless of how you work out, there are benefits to simply making activity a natural part of your daily routine.

In fact, experts are encouraging “activity snacks” taken throughout the day rather than — or in addition to — getting all of your fitness in one high-intensity class or long walk, for instance. “Moving around throughout the day ... is like the fire that keeps the metabolic furnace burning,” Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery, tells TODAY.com.

When finding the right type of exercise, there's no one-size-fits-all answer — as long as it's something you enjoy enough to do it consistently, he says.

"The holy grail of fitness, in my world, is compliance," Metzl explains. "It doesn't matter if you're a yogi or a biker or a walker or a swimmer. We know that people will be the most compliant with something they're smiling about doing."

If the number of steps in your tracker is what motivates you, then use that as a tool; if you prefer to focus on time, then throw on a podcast that lasts for the number of minutes you're shooting for, he suggests.

But it’s still important to remember that the “right” amount of steps to aim for in a day may be different from person to person. And you don’t need to push your body to hit an arbitrary goal.

“You shouldn’t ignore your body to hit a target," Dr. Lawrence Phillips, an associate professor of medicine and medical director of outpatient cardiology at NYU Langone Health in New York, told TODAY.com previously. "You can spread your activity throughout the day rather than having one set period,” he added.

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons (including supporting your mental well-being and, if you walk with others, socializing) to get some steps in more frequently than that. But, based on these results, it's OK if you don't hit your step goal every single day. As long as you can get some steps in once or twice a week, you're likely to see some benefits.

CORRECTION (March 30, 2023, 9:05 a.m. ET:) A previous version of this story stated that Dr. Kosuke Inoue is a chronic disease epidemiologist at UCLA. He is now affiliated with Kyoto University.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com