- Walking 8,000 steps one to two times a week may improve your health, according to new research.
- People are generally advised to try to get in 10,000 steps a day.
- Experts say any amount of movement is good for your heart and body.
Current recommendations urge Americans to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise over the span of a week, and it makes sense to interpret that as needing to work out most days of the week. Unfortunately, life, relationships, work, and everything else you have happening on a regular basis can get in the way of that goal. Now, a new study suggests you shouldn’t stress if you can only fit in a good fitness effort a few days a week—specifically, 8,000 steps once or twice a week may suffice.
The study, which was published in JAMA, evaluated data from 3,101 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 2005-2006 and wore an accelerometer for one week, which tracked their step counts, which were also measured against their mortality data through the end of 2019.
The researchers found that people who walked 8,000 or more steps a day once or twice a week had cardiovascular perks and lower mortality rates that were nearly as good as people who clocked that same distance every day. “Participants who only took 8,000 steps or more one or two days during the week also showed substantially lower all-cause and cardiovascular mortality risk,” the researchers wrote.
Specifically, researchers discovered that people who walked at least 8,000 steps over one or two days had a 15% lower risk of dying in the next 10 years, while people who hit 8,000 or more steps three to seven days a week had a 16.5% lower risk compared to people who took very few steps a day. The risk of dying from heart disease was about the same—8.1% in the weekend warrior group, and 8.4% for people who got more steps on a regular basis.
The study’s conclusion had pretty positive news for weekend warriors (a.k.a. those working out only on weekends): “The study’s findings suggest that, for adults who face difficulties in exercising regularly, achieving the recommended daily steps only a couple days a week may have meaningful health benefits.”
Why might exercising just a few days a week be helpful?
It’s important to point out that the study has some limitations—it only looked at physical activity data from one week and didn’t factor in other forms of exercise that would conceivably help someone’s health but not require steps, like cycling or rowing. The type of exercise people did and how hard they went also weren’t considered—the trackers only measured steps.
Still, experts say there may be something to this. “It’s pretty much in line with what I talk to many of my patients about,” says Sean Heffron, M.D., a preventative cardiologist at NYU Langone Heart. “Because, in reality, the majority of Americans aren’t getting 8,000 steps on any day of the week.”
Dr. Heffron points out that “you don’t need to be a marathoner or even 5K runner to derive cardiovascular benefit from being physically active.”
Physical activity has a lot of perks for the heart and overall health, Dr. Heffron says. Among other things, it stimulates the cells in the body, heart, and muscles to make enzymes and compounds that support different processes in the body, it improves insulin susceptibility, promotes good blood pressure, and helps you maintain a healthy weight, he says.
“Physical activity is good for your bones, brain, immune system, stress levels, and for your sleep,” says Holly S. Andersen, M.D., attending cardiologist and an associate professor of clinical medicine at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Those who are physically active also tend to eat better.”
Overall, it’s important to move—even if it’s just a few times a week, Dr. Andersen says. “We know that prolonged sitting is terrible for us,” she says. “Going from doing nothing to doing something gives the most benefit. With more and more exercise, the benefits start to plateau. Walking a good amount every day is healthy but, if you are only doing it two to three times a week, keep it up.”
What are the current guidelines?
The American Heart Association (AHA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommend striving for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, along with two days of muscle-strengthening activity.
The AHA recommends that people spend less time sitting, noting that even light-intensity activity can offset some of the effects of being sedentary. But the AHA also says that people can gain even more benefits by being active for at least 300 minutes a week.
Still, most people fall short of even meeting the most basic goals, Dr. Heffron says. Just 47% of Americans meet the aerobic guidelines and 24% meet both the aerobic and strength training recommendations, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How to get more activity in your week
There is no official guidance on step counts, but it’s becoming a buzzier way to think about physical activity. In general, 2,000 steps equals a mile, so 8,000 steps translate to about four miles. Many fitness trackers recommend aiming for 10,000 steps a day, but the average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day (1.5 to 2 miles), according to the Mayo Clinic.
While Dr. Heffron says it’s ideal to have a regular exercise routine, he also says people shouldn’t get discouraged if they tend to be active in smaller moments. “Small amounts, spread out over a couple of days a week can be beneficial,” he says. Worth noting: One 2022 meta-analysis of 17 studies that looked at data from 226,899 adults found that adding 500 to 1,000 steps a day to your routine can also have big benefits for your overall health.
Dr. Andersen simply encourages people to move more. “Physical activity is the fountain of youth. Prolonged sitting is detrimental to your health,” she says. “Do not sit in front of your computer all day—get up and move at least once an hour.”