People at high risk for obesity may need to get in more than 14,500 steps a day, new study says. Here’s what to know.

Woman walking in workout clothes with water bottle
A new study looked at the link between having a genetic risk of developing obesity and how much physical activity someone would need to do to reduce their risk. (Getty Images)

More than 2 in 5 adults in the U.S. have obesity, and rates of the condition have increased over time. But research has repeatedly found that obesity is a complicated disease, and for some, the condition has a genetic component. Now, a new study finds that people at a higher genetic risk of obesity may need to exercise more than those at a lower risk to avoid developing the condition. The study, which was published in JAMA Network Open on March 27, analyzed physical activity and clinical and genetic data from 3,124 people who participated in the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program. The researchers specifically looked at the link between having a genetic risk of developing obesity and how much physical activity someone would need to do to lower their risk.

What the study found

While the study participants walked around 8,236 steps per day, over the course of 5.4 years, the rates of obesity in the group increased from 13% to 43% in the lowest and highest risk groups, respectively. The researchers determined that people with a genetic risk of developing obesity needed to increase their step count in order to lower their risk of developing the disease.

The exact step count varied by baseline BMI (body mass index) — a tool that assesses whether an individual falls into a normal weight range for their height — and a person’s calculated risk, but the researchers determined that people whose BMI value was in the 75th percentile needed to walk an average of 2,280 more steps per day — for a total of 11,020 steps per day — than those in the 50th percentile to have a similar risk of developing obesity.

However, those with higher baseline BMIs needed to move even more. People with baseline BMIs of 22, 24, 26 and 28 in the 75th risk percentile needed to walk an extra 3,460, 4,430, 5,380 and 6,350 steps per day, respectively, to have the same risk level of developing obesity as those in the 25th percentile. That’s more than 14,500 daily steps for those with the highest BMI at the highest risk.

“I see patients in clinic who are struggling with weight loss,” lead study author Dr. Evan Brittain, associate professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “It's intuitive that the risk of obesity varies based on how much you move, but also your background genetics, which you can't do much about.” Brittain says that patients are usually frustrated that the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommend getting at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, are considered one-size-fits-all. “But the amount of activity you need to reduce the risk of obesity is variable,” he says.

How realistic are these step counts?

Aiming to get more than 14,500 steps a day is a lofty goal, especially given that the average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, which is about 1.5 to 2 miles. “For most people, that’s tough to do, especially if they’re working and busy,” Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. Ali says it’s possible to reach higher step counts but adds that people “have to be dedicated” to pull this off.

Dr. Steven Batash, a gastroenterologist and leading physician at Batash Endoscopic Weight Loss, tells Yahoo Life that these step counts can pose challenges for people with a high genetic risk for obesity. “While increasing physical activity is important for overall health, finding practical and sustainable ways to incorporate more movement into daily life may require personalized strategies and support,” he says.

But Brittain says it’s important for people to at least know what they would need to do to lower their risk of developing obesity. “This is empowering,” he says. “Now there is some information based on genetics about how much physical activity you need to prevent obesity.”

What helps lower the risk of developing obesity?

While the step counts in this latest study are high, it may be possible to get closer to them by spreading out activity throughout the day, Dr. Alfred F. Tallia, professor and chair of family medicine and community health at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “There are small things we can do — park a little farther away from our destination, take the steps in buildings up or down a floor or two, get up and move every hour during the day, and find a gym, exercise or walking partner and hold each other accountable,” he says.

However, obesity is a complex disease, and doctors say there’s usually more than exercise involved in lowering a person’s risk of developing the condition. “Weight gain depends on exercise along with the quality of one’s diet and the number of calories coming in,” Brittain explains. “There are also many other things we didn’t capture in our study, including socioeconomic status. We really just focused on step count.”

To lower the risk of developing obesity, Ali recommends that his patients focus on what they eat. “The majority of weight gain is due to diet,” he says. “Stick to protein and vegetables, and stay away from foods that are high in carbohydrates and sugars.” Taking care of overall physical and mental health, taking medications as prescribed, getting seven or more hours of sleep and staying well hydrated may also help, Ali says.

Stress management is important, too, Batash says. “Chronic stress can contribute to weight gain and obesity,” he says. “Finding effective stress management techniques can help mitigate this risk.”

Brittain notes that the point of his study isn’t to overwhelm people who have a high risk of obesity with elevated step goals, but to provide clear guidance on what will help them lower their personal risk of developing the disease. “Your genetics are not your destiny,” he says.