Walking 5,000 steps three times per week could add three years to life expectancy

  • Research conducted by Vitality Global, and the London School of Economics, finds enormous health benefits from habitual exercise, even at low volumes.
  • Sustaining a healthy habit has a disproportionate impact on health for older generations.
  • Study establishes principles for creating a healthy habit that could significantly reduce healthcare costs, paving the way for targeted, incentivised behaviour change.

12 March 2024, London: New research published by Vitality Global, the next-generation health and life insurer, and the London School of Economics, shows that sustaining a healthy exercise habit of at least 5,000 steps three times per week for three years can add up to three years to an individual’s life expectancy and reduce their healthcare costs by up to 13%.

The research titled ‘The Vitality Habit Index’ mapped the behaviours and habits of one million Vitality Programme members1 to determine the best ways to form and maintain healthy habits, and to understand the science of how healthy habits can lead to longer, healthier lives.

Insufficient physical activity is associated with up to five million premature deaths every year and drives up levels of overweight and obesity.2 Estimates suggest that one in five deaths worldwide are now associated with poor diet and 1.5 billion people globally may be obese by 2035.3

The WHO estimates that 27.5% of adults and 81% of adolescents are physically inactive. If this level of inactivity maintains, new cases of preventable non-communicable diseases (such as type 2 diabetes) will cost health systems US$27 billion each year.4

As countries around the world deal with the strain of rising treatment costs, the Habit Index research sheds light on the small changes that people can take to improve their health and the significant impact that habitual exercise could have to make global health systems more resilient and sustainable.

The benefit to the individual

Small changes to create and sustain healthier habits could have a significant impact on individuals’ health outcomes. Major positive impacts were seen across all age groups; however, this was particularly true for older generations, showing that it’s never too late to start. People 65 and older saw a 52% reduction in their mortality risk after sustaining a habit of 7,500 steps three or more times per week. This is significantly greater than those aged between 45 and 65, who saw a 38% reduction in their mortality risk, and the total population, who saw a 27% reduction.

The research indicates that doing 7,500 steps per day on average achieves the bulk of the reduction in common-cause mortality. Beyond 7,500 steps, the health improvements become more incremental.

On average across all age groups, those who sustain a healthy physical activity habit – physical activity three times per week for more than two years can - add between 2.5 years (for men) and three years (for women) to their life expectancy.

Habitual exercise lowers risk of type 2 diabetes

The research analysed the impact of forming and sustaining a physical activity habit on an individual’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. People who sustain a habit of 10,000 steps, three times a week, for three years can reduce their type 2 diabetes risk by up to 41%. Increasing the frequency of exercise to four or more times a week saw a 57% reduction in risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Similarly, there are major benefits for those with the condition already. A 55-year-old with type 2 diabetes who changes from limited physical activity to sustain a habit of 5,000 steps three times a week, reduces their all-cause mortality risk by 40%.

It is estimated that 529 million people have diabetes globally5, costing billions in treatment costs each year.

Incentivising and sustaining healthy habits

The Habit Index sheds light on the science of habit formation to understand how we can build habitual exercise habits and improve health.  It shows that the most enduring physical activity habits are formed gradually, in laddered increments, starting with a lower target.

The three rules for creating robust habits are:

  1. Start low and slow – don’t be too ambitious. Individuals who start with low- to moderate-intensity exercise at low frequency are likely to maintain their habit 20% longer compared to those who start with high-intensity workouts.
  2. Use “habit laddering” – set a target from your baseline. Set the target based on aims and existing health status, for example, when inactive, starting with 2,500 steps three to five times a week serves as the “first step on the ladder.”
  3. Focus on consistency then intensity. Keep up the activity to form the habit and only increase the intensity once the action has been repeated for between six and eight weeks.

One of the fundamental challenges in embedding a preventative approach to health is bridging the gap between what we know we should do to remain healthy – and what we do. Incentives and personalised rewards can help bridge this gap in the beginning, as we gradually build up healthy habits, after which behaviours become automatic and resilient to change. Tailored incentives, coupled with a scientific understanding of how to form and sustain habits, can help people live longer, healthier lives.

Healthy habits can profoundly extend the quality and length of life. Our data shows the impact is not only significant but applies across ages, risk factors, and health statuses – maintaining a small amount of physical activity has lasting health impacts. Given the role of behaviour in health risk globally, a better understanding of the mechanisms of habits can be a powerful way to improve individual health – and to evolve our healthcare systems to prioritise preventive health. Adrian Gore, Founder of Discovery Vitality

This research clearly shows the power of small behavioural changes and the significant impact these can have on health and wellbeing. Taking consistent steps to achieve a health habit is key, and we can see within this data that it’s never too late to start.  This approach to habitual physical activity and exercise has the potential to completely transform and improve our collective health. Through incentivising behaviour change, we can form and sustain healthy habits, which has significant potential within preventative healthcare and supporting people to live healthier for longer. Neville Koopowitz, Vitality UK CEO

The findings of this study are a clear call to action for policy makers to promote prevention in public health and build on the power of healthy habits to improve individual and collective health outcomes. Successful habit-based interventions can lengthen life expectancy, entail considerable savings for public health services, improve productivity, and help address the significant long-term challenges posed by mental health, social isolation, and non-communicable diseases such as cancer and type 2 diabetes. Professor Joan Costa-Font, London School of Economics 
Favicon for news.vitalityglobal.com Click here for the research study, summary booklet and other downloadable media.  news.vitalityglobal.com

Notes to editors:


Recognising the pivotal role that habits play in shaping health outcomes, Vitality has developed a data-driven tool to quantify habit formation: the Vitality Habit Index. 

In total, the study looked at the habits of over one million Vitality members across South Africa and the UK over a ten-year period, mapping their behaviours to understand how to make healthier habits, and consequently displace unhealthy habits.

This tool scientifically defines habits using verifiable data related to physical activity and nutrition. Vitality built a predictive model per member using the previous six weeks of a member’s data to predict the behaviour or action in the seventh week, and thus understand how well past behaviour predicts future behaviour.

Through its development, Vitality aims to understand the impact of lifestyle choices and behaviours on health, understand why individuals struggle to adhere to exercise goals, identify how to cultivate healthy habits, and discern which habits are more likely to endure. 


[1] 1,000,000 people in the UK and South Africa between the years 2013-2023.

[2] Fit Bodies, Fit Economies, Vitality, 2019.

[3] WHO, Obesity and overweight, 2021.

[4] WHO, Global status report on physical activity, 2022.

[5] Ong et al., Global, regional, and national burden of diabetes from 1990 to 2021, 2023.

About Vitality Global

Vitality is part of Discovery Limited, a worldwide insurer and investment manager impacting more than 40 million members in over 40 markets worldwide, across Europe, the United States, Australia, Africa, Canada and China.

Vitality pioneered the ‘shared-value’ insurance model, a unique approach based on the scientifically proven principles of behavioural economics. Through this model, Vitality helps members take a more active role in managing their own wellness, encouraging them to develop healthy long-term habits that are good for them, good for the company and good for society. The effect is positive for all stakeholders – members benefit from better health, financial rewards and additional incentives; employers’ benefit from healthier, more productive, and more engaged employees; and Vitality benefits from a healthier membership base.

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