Is 6,000 Steps the New Daily Standard for a Healthy Population?

There is no doubt that more active employees are happier and healthier employees.

For many years 10,000 steps per day has been viewed as the daily benchmark for physical activity. In comparison however, the CDC Guidelines promote 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.

This equates to about 20-25 minutes daily – or around 3,000 walking steps for the average person.

That’s a 7,000 daily step swing! So what gives? How much physical activity is “enough” to have an impact on the goal for most employers – population health risk reduction?

Let’s take a closer look at the two book-end standards and also examine some real wellness program data and outcomes.

First, let’s take 10,000 steps per day. 

This benchmark was established when pendulum/mechanical pedometers were the leading technology – these devices were notorious for over estimating. Many folks promoting this standard were also overachievers (the “already active”) so 10,000 steps was often a stretch goal or badge of honor. Finally, 10,000 is a wonderful “round number” – easy to promote and remember.

So what about the CDC guidelines? These actually promote “conscious” activity or exercise sessions – meaning that this doesn’t include steps taken as part of a daily routine – walking around your house or at work or walking to/from your car. 

Including this “regular” movement would increase the number of steps recorded by an activity tracker or smartphone beyond the `3,000 step guideline per day. 

The other note about the CDC Guideline is that it is a minimum level, so activity levels above this can equate to more individual and aggregate benefits.

Our experience with 10+ years of program management and observation is that 10,000 steps is often viewed as an “impossible goal” by the majority of employees. 

Let’s say an employee uses a wearable device to establish their baseline level is 2,500 steps/day – 10,000 steps now feels like a Mount Everest sized goal and can actually be demotivating! So, what does make sense as an achievable goal that will impact aggregate health risk?

There are a number of studies or programs that can help us point the way to an answer:

  1. A few years ago UHC commissioned a study that showed an inflection point in healthcare claims costs between 4,000 and 5,000 steps per day. For instance, those who walked greater than 4,000 steps cut their claims cost by over 50% compared with those who walked less than 2,000. 

  2. Our long-time partner, Cleveland Clinic’s Healthy Choice program, has had tremendous success in terms of lowering aggregate health care risk and costs for it’s 60,000 employees and spouses.

    A significant piece of the program focuses on keeping the healthy healthy. For those members who do not have any of the six modifiable conditions the program is built around, the clinic incentivizes one behavior – be active. The medical management team at the clinic have established the monthly goal at 150,000 steps per month – or 5,000 steps per day. 

  3. Analysis that we have conducted with another one of our partners shows that 6,000 steps is a significant threshold in a number of ways

      1. In the initial year of the program for employees with a starting BMI of greater than 25, those with over 6,000 steps per day averaged a 6.4 lbs weight loss. The remaining employees with less than 6,000 steps averaged a slight weight increase (<1lb). 

      2. During the next two years of the program we noted that increasing daily steps from less than to more than 6,000 showed a high likelihood of losing weight.

        While all employees who tracked in the opposite direction (from greater than to less than 6,000 steps per day) gained weight with an average of +10 lbs. 
      1. Finally, this year we looked at activity levels in relation to health risk. 6,000 steps per day maps to low risk aggregate biometric outcomes – passing 3 or 4 of body max index, blood pressure, cholesterol, & blood sugar. 

    So circling back to where we started, there is no doubt that more active employees are healthier employees. 
In terms of guiding a population however, 10,000 steps per day feels like it should be the top end of a healthy range that starts around 5,000 steps per day. 

Our partner’s data analysis narrows in on 6,000 steps per day as a meaningful population health target level. We have found that engaging employees in this level of activity yields results in terms of aggregate health risk reduction.

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