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In a recent study of postal workers, researchers found that the most sedentary workers had higher body mass index, waist circumference and cholesterol levels than those who were more active. Meanwhile, those who exercised the most -- about 15,000 steps (about 7 miles) a day -- had normal body mass index and waist circumference and did not have an increased risk of heart disease.
So should you aim for 15,000 steps?
It depends on one major factor: your current baseline, says Michelle Stanton, an ACE-certified walking instructor and author of the new book, "Walk Your Way, Healthier."
"If you have a sedentary job, going home and sitting in front of the TV and walking 15,000 steps could mean a major change in your lifestyle," Stanton said. "I was shocked to find that on days when I was late for work, I could only walk about 3,000 steps."
No matter how far you are from 15,000 steps, Stanton recommends that you aim to increase your total steps by 1,000 to 2,000 steps per day for a week or two, and then continue to gradually increase your total steps until you reach 15,000 steps. "All studies show that when you go from doing less to doing more, no matter where you start, you get more cardio, more calories burned and more weight loss," she says.
It may take 10 to 15 minutes of walking each day to be hyperactive. Stanton also walks around within a 1-mile radius, avoids drive-thru services (whether to a bank, coffee shop, or pharmacy), and never drives from one store to another in a mall. "I also stopped sitting in a chair watching my son's baseball game and started walking around and taking some great pictures," she said.
Stay fit at any step count
If it's unrealistic for you to walk 15,000 steps a day, don't despair. 10,000 steps is still associated with multiple health benefits, but even that may not be right for you. For example, if you move fast, you may be able to escape by taking a few fewer steps. "When you walk at a moderate or brisk pace, you get more of the benefits of aerobic exercise," says Stanton, who recommends adding 30 to 60 seconds of brisk walking intervals to your daily walk. "If you don't want to use a timer, you can even walk a block quickly and recover two or three."
Remember that other forms of exercise are also important. If you regularly go to the gym for indoor cycling classes, it won't show up as a step count, but it does count. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that you do 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days a week.
"I don't always walk 10,000 steps a day," Stanton said. "But I did hit 30 minutes of active time."