How many steps per day for health? We’ve all heard that the gold standard is 10,000 steps.

But what is 10,000 steps based on? According to I-Min Lee, lead author of the new study and an epidemiologist in the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the earliest mention was dated 1965 and traced back to a Japanese company that made pedometers. “They called their pedometer a Manpo-kei, which in Japanese means a ‘10,000 steps meter. That number was less based on science than on marketing purposes.”

The optimal number may be much less dependent on your age, new research suggests. Women whose step counters reached 4,400 each day had a 41% lower rate of death than women who took 1,700 fewer steps each day, a new study of older women found.

New and improved research methods

The average number of steps taken by American adults is between 4,000 and 5,000 per day, previous research shows.

Yet past studies have relied on self-reporting, “an individual’s recall of what they did,” explained Lee. “Nowadays, with the advent of wearables, including research-grade wearables, we are able to measure physical activity more precisely.”

She and her colleagues collected data from nearly 17,000 women, at an average age of 72, who for seven days wore on their hips (the preferred placement for a step-counting device) research-grade accelerometers, a device for measuring both motion and speed. Next, the researchers tracked the women for four years or longer. During this time, 504 of the women died.

Results of Analysis on How Many Steps per Day for Health

• An analysis of the data showed that of these deaths, 275 were in the group of least active participants and averaged just 2,700 steps each day. This low activity group proved to be at the highest risk of death, the study showed.

• Compared to this group, the women who averaged 4,400 steps per day had a 41% lower rate of death.

• Taking more steps each day lowered risk of mortality even more, she said: “Until about 7,500 steps and then it sort of leveled – meaning if you took more steps than that, it didn’t help you anymore.”

“So for women who are not active or thinking about being active, just a modest number of steps a day can help your health,” she said.

“The second question we asked was: Does it matter whether your steps are fast or slow?” she said. Turns out “it didn’t matter whether you were stepping faster or slower, it was the number of steps that actually counted,” she explained.

She emphasized that her study only looked at mortality rates so it’s not clear whether more steps – 10,000, say? – might offer additional health benefits, such as better cognitive health or daily function. She hopes to study this in the future, she said.

Steven Blair, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, told CNN in an email that major strengths of the new study include “objectively measured physical activity” and a conclusion that specified an exact number of steps per day.

Blair, who was not involved in the new study though he’s done his own similar research, said that inactivity is the “biggest public health problem of the 21st century.” One of the study’s most important findings, then, is “the value of doing at least some activity and it does not need to be at a high intensity,” he said.

Click here to read more about how many steps per day for health.