THANKS TO MARKETING EFFORTS and the default daily target set on Fitbit activity trackers, reaching 10,000 steps has become ingrained as a benchmark for daily walking. However, a study published May 29, 2019, in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that taking as few as 4,400 steps per day made an impact, lowering mortality rates in a cohort of 16,741 women with a mean age of 72. This benefit leveled off at 7,500 steps per day.

The research also showed that a small increase in steps from a person’s typical activity, such as an additional 2,000 steps per day, reduced mortality rates. Simple actions like parking farther away from your destination than usual or taking the stairs instead of an elevator can contribute to meeting the goal.

The study focused on all-cause mortality, so the fitness metric may vary for other health outcomes, such as those for cancer. But lead author I-Min Lee, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says that we can extrapolate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ general guidelines for physical activity to determine a standard daily goal. “If one follows the recommendation of walking at least 150 minutes per week, it would likely come to 7,000 steps per day,” says Lee. “This is a very reasonable goal to target.”

Lasting Habits

When treatment ends, many patients want to avoid dwelling on cancer—but this can be an important time to think about ways to reduce the risk of recurrence.

Alison Conlin, an oncologist at Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, Oregon, recommends physical activity equivalent to walking for three to five hours weekly, citing research suggesting its mortality benefits for survivors of early-stage breast cancer.

Fitness trackers aren’t essential to maintaining an active lifestyle, but they can help people exercise consistently and provide motivation to do so. Feeling motivated to exercise is especially important for cancer patients, says Alison Conlin, an oncologist at Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, Oregon. Conlin co-authored a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in May 2019, in which 252 patients 60 and older who were receiving chemotherapy were randomly assigned to either a low-to-moderate-intensity progressive walking and resistance training program or to standard care. The exercise program helped improve mood and lessen anxiety.

“We definitely have the evidence to say that if you’re not already active and you’re doing chemotherapy, being active can make you feel better,” says Conlin.