You’ve probably heard that we should all aim for 10 000 steps each day. It’s promoted by a variety of organizations and the number is programmed into pretty much every activity gadget out there. Aiming for 10 000 steps is also responsible for people (like me) wearing pedometers on their waist, constantly checking out numbers.

But wait, is 10 000 steps the ideal number? And is it good for everyone?

Recently a number of experts in the field have been criticizing this target, saying it isn’t based on science or it’s pointless. These scientists refer to the fact that the number of 10 000 steps is arbitrary and was created as a marketing campaign in Japan leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. However, just because an idea wasn’t founded in science, doesn’t mean it’s not good. Studies have shown that walking 10 000 steps is associated with better health.

What I like about the 10 000 steps message is that it is simple to follow. It’s a nice round number, much better than 8637 or 11 255. It also entails walking, which is something we’re familiar with and can do without much planning- no equipment or gym membership required. And the idea is that you can accumulate the steps over the course of a day. That means all those steps walking to the car, to the water cooler or going out to get your lunch count.

women walking- small

Monitoring your steps can also provide motivation. You may seek out ways to get extra steps such as parking further away from your destination, walking to get that milk instead of driving, or even taking time in the workday to go for a walk, which isn’t a bad thing as it can give you a burst of energy that rivals having a cup of coffee.

Its simplicity is also its weakness. Is 10 000 steps the optimal for health benefits? And what about intensity?

There really isn’t a study that has shown that 10 000 steps is the optimal number for health outcomes. A number of studies have actually shown that people who do more than 10 000 steps per day have even greater health benefits. This includes postal carriers and people from the Amish community, both groups spend a large amount of time being active throughout the day. But the gains of going from 10 000 to 15 000 steps in a day are not 50% better. The greatest gains come from going from no, or little activity, to a bit more, and while benefits continue to add up with more activity, it’s a process of diminishing returns.

How fast should you be walking those steps? The global guidelines for physical activity recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity to steps. Moderate to vigorous activity for walking translates to walking about 100 steps per minute, which is about 2000 to 3000 steps per day at this pace and faster than most people’s natural walking speed. So if you’re aiming for 10 000 steps, you should ensure that a third of those steps are at a decent pace.

penalty kick

The other thing that I like is that 10 000 steps provides a target or goal to aim for. Just like aiming for 30 minutes of activity per day, or running 20 miles per week, and as I’ve written, having a goal is a good thing. A goal is a great way to provide motivation, but for a goal to be effective it needs to be realistic (achievable) and relevant, among other things. Can you actually achieve it? A goal that is too easy doesn’t provide much motivation, likewise with a goal that is too hard.

The average person takes about 4000 to 5000 steps per day. So is it realistic to expect most people to double or triple their number of steps? Maybe, but it may not be achievable for everyone. And keep in mind, that 10 000 steps will take people anywhere from 2-3 hours of time.

While 10 000 steps may not be the optimal amount of activity per day, it is a great target for those who like walking, but if your activity of choice is something like cycling or tennis, that counts as activity and can replace some of those steps. That could mean cycling for 30-45 minutes and then aiming for 5000 steps that day.

At the end of the day, the best activity is the one that you will do and can stick to doing. There’s no point forcing yourself to walk if you can’t stand it- you’ll most likely end up quitting anyway. Find what you like to do, and do it regularly.