Daily walking targets are the easiest way for the average person to get their minimum daily dose of physical activity
The Roman physician Galen is considered a forefather of the study of anatomy and medicine. Writing during the second century, he emphasized the need for exercise every day and throughout life — not just for the prevention of disease, but for the promotion of proper digestive health, organ function, and general well-being.
According to the medical historian Jack Berryman, Galen recommended exercise that was vigorous enough to increase the breath, but not so intense that it left a person in pain. Like many of the great Greek thinkers who came before him, Galen prized “moderation in all things,” and that extended to exercise.
Fast forward almost 2,000 years, and many of Galen’s views — about the necessity of movement and exercise, and also on the benefits of moderation — are back in vogue among today’s exercise researchers. “We’re physiologically meant to be active — it’s how we evolved,” says Dr. Tim Church, an adjunct professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University.
A lot of Church’s work has examined different doses of exercise and their effects on health. Like Galen, Church says immoderate approaches to exercise can lead to overuse injuries or even long-term health concerns. (While not all experts agree, there’s some evidence that very heavy endurance training may promote heart trouble.)
On the other hand, Church says it’s beyond doubt that small, regular bouts of physical activity can pay huge health dividends. “Whether you’re talking about preventing heart disease, cancer, or [supporting] mental health, most of the strong evidence we have shows that even a little bit of activity goes a long way,” he says.
So how much is just enough? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has long recommended a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. (Walking and easy cycling are two “moderate” forms of physical activity, while hiking uphill or running are considered “vigorous.”) HHS also recommends twice-weekly “muscle-strengthening” training sessions, which includes activities like weight lifting. A 2018 research review conducted by the group of scientists tasked with updating the HHS guidelines supported these exercise minimums.
“These recommendations are based on decades of study data, so they’re going to be appropriate targets,” says Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor and dean of the College of Health and Human Services at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
“I jokingly say that my three favorite exercises are walking, walking, and walking.”
While Tudor-Locke agrees with and supports those HHS guidelines, some of her own research has drilled down into the health effects of walking, as well as the minimum number of daily steps human beings need to take in order to maintain good health. “The answer we’ve come up with is at least 7,500 steps per day,” she says.
For a seminal 2004 study in the journal Sports Medicine, and again in a 2008 follow-up, she and her colleagues determined that 7,500 daily steps are the minimum number required to meet public health targets for physical activity. More research, much of it based on Tudor-Locke’s work, has found that taking 7,500 steps is associated with a reduced risk for high BMI and significantly lower risk for depression. “Ten thousand steps is the popular convention, and that’s a nice, round number,” she says. But while hitting 10,000 is great if a person can manage it each day, 7,500 steps is the minimum people should aim to meet or exceed, she says.
Along with this 7,500-step minimum, she says that at least 3,000 of those steps should be taken at a moderately intense cadence. And there again, her research has established a guideline based on oxygen consumption and other measures of exercise intensity. “We’ve found that [a pace of] 100 steps per minute is a reasonable translation of moderate intensity,” she says. She recommends counting steps with a timer set for 15 seconds, and then multiplying that number by four to figure out a one-minute pace.
“If you want to add running or other forms of exercise, these will provide additional benefits,” she says. But if you’re looking for the minimum amount of daily movement you need to maintain health, 7,500 steps — 3,000 of them at a moderate pace — has a lot of research backing it up.
Church reiterates many of Tudor-Locke’s exercise prescriptions. “I jokingly say that my three favorite exercises are walking, walking, and walking,” he says. “It’s really the one thing that your body was designed to do all day.” While he absolutely supports mixing in weight–training sessions, yoga, cycling, or other forms of physical activity, he says daily walking targets are the simplest, cheapest way for the average person to get their minimum daily dose of exercise.
A final recommendation, he says, is for people to use some of their daily steps to break up long periods of sedentary time. “I tell people to get at least 50 to 100 steps every 45 minutes,” he says. A minute or two of walking — to the bathroom, to the workplace kitchen for a glass of water — will achieve that 50-step mark. And Church says breaking up those extended periods of inactivity is a great way to safeguard one’s health from the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.