- Taking an additional 500 steps a day can have a significant impact on heart health in people ages 70 and older.
- Increasing one's steps from 2,000 a day to 4,500 can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, or heart failure by 77%.
- It's important to maintain physical activity as one ages, and reaching a daily step count is a helpful and attainable way to stay active.
For people ages 70 and older, taking an additional 500 steps a day—equal to a quarter-mile of walking—can have a notable impact on heart health, new research shows.
The news comes from a study presented Thursday at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions 2023, which found that adding just 500 steps to a daily step count was associated with a 14% lower risk of heart disease, stroke, or heart failure in people over the age of 70.
The benefits were also cumulative: Each 500-step increment was associated with the 14% lower risk—researchers eventually found that increasing one’s steps from 2,000 a day to 4,500 led to a 77% lower risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event.
“It’s important to maintain physical activity as we age, however, daily step goals should be attainable. We were surprised to find that every additional quarter of a mile, or 500 steps, of walking had such a strong benefit to heart health,” study lead author Erin Dooley, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health said in a news release.
“While we do not want to diminish the importance of higher intensity physical activity, encouraging small increases in the number of daily steps also has significant cardiovascular benefits,” Dooley added. “If you are an older adult over the age of 70, start with trying to get 500 more steps per day.”
Small, Incremental Improvements Lead to Significant Health Benefits
For the study, researchers used data from a larger ongoing study—the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study—which originally recruited 16,000 adults. Of those participants, researchers analyzed health data from 452 people who were an average age of 78 years old. About 60% were women and 20% self-identified as Black.
The participants wore an accelerometer, placed at their hip, for three or more days, for 10 or more hours at a time. The average step count among the participants was about 3,500 steps per day. Over the course of a 3.5-year follow-up period, 7.5% of participants experienced a cardiovascular event, including coronary heart disease, stroke, or heart failure.
Compared to those who took less than 2,000 steps per day, those who logged 4,500 steps per day had a 77% lower risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event. For every additional 500 steps a person took per day, their risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced by 14%.
More research is needed to provide a clearer look at how step counts impact health—it may be that higher daily step counts can in some way prevent or delay cardiovascular disease, or lower step counts could indicate disease not yet diagnosed. Additional studies will also have to take into account steps taken over a longer period of time and in a more diverse group of people.
Physical Activity Known to Reduce Cardiovascular Disease Risk
Exercise has long been linked to heart health benefits; walking specifically has shown to help lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, strengthen muscles and bones, boost mood, and help prevent long periods of sitting, which can be detrimental to health, said John Higgins, MD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine in the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.
For older adults, walking’s benefits to cardiovascular health, balance, and bone and muscle strength are key. “Walking brings all three to bear, which is why it’s often recommended,” said Daniel E. Forman, MD, professor of medicine and chair of the section of geriatric cardiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School. “But if you cannot do that, there are other things you can do with great value.”
Though the number of steps were the easiest thing to measure in the new study, other beneficial activities include water aerobics and swimming, particularly for people who deal with arthritis; and light weightlifting or bodyweight exercises to help improve muscle and bone strength.
“Even art activities and craft-making and painting have been shown to be beneficial in the elderly, especially if they have balance issues,” Dr. Higgins said. He also recommended chair exercises for people who may not be able to stand or walk.
Easy Ways to Add More Steps Throughout the Day
Although an extra 500 steps may seem insignificant to some, it’s important to consider age and mobility. “Older adults do take fewer steps [overall], so it’s a larger proportion of their daily activity compared to someone younger,” Dooley said, adding that the most notable benefits from the study began at 3,000 daily steps.
A first step to getting more daily movement may be getting a smartwatch or other kind of activity tracker, like a simple pedometer. These tools can help anyone be more aware of their current and goal activity levels. Being active with a buddy can also provide both safety and social benefits that may make someone more inclined to be active.
One of the most important rules to getting more movement in throughout the day is to do activities you enjoy, Dr. Forman said. “If you don’t like to walk but you like to dance, that’s what you should do,” he added.
In addition to that, you can add more steps to your daily living activities. “Don’t ask someone to get you lunch, get up and get lunch; if you can’t walk somewhere and you need to drive, park a little bit farther away in the parking lot,” Dr. Forman said. “Integrating even small amounts of activity into your life has a really meaningful health benefit.”
Overall, it’s best to set small goals that feel doable to you and your routine—that makes increased movement more sustainable. “Activity should always be achievable,” Dooley said. “I don’t want people to set big goals and then be discouraged.”
American Heart Association. For older adults every 500 additional steps taken daily associated with lower heart risk.