Science-based, health promotion or marketing ploy? If you have some sort of exercise watch or gadget, most likely you’ve heard of the goal to get 10 000 steps each day. Even if you don’t, you probably know someone who talks about their daily step goal. They’re walking every chance they get, while watching TV (like me), at work or to go to the corner store. Literally jumping at excuses to keeping walking. But is walking 10,000 steps per day ideal for you?
A number of experts in the field criticized this target, saying it’s not 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. If you do this much walking, fantastic! It certainly isn’t bad for you and is associated with better health.
Is 10,000 steps per day a feasible goal?
For a goal to be of value, it has to be feasible. That doesn’t mean it needs to be easy, but rather within reach. What I like about 10,000 steps is it’s simple to follow. It’s a nice round number, compared to 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 monitoring your steps can also provide motivation.
It’s important to note the target of 10,000 steps is meant to be met as an accumulation of steps throughout the day. If you were to walk it all in one go, it may take you from 2-3 hours. That’s a lot of time! Sure you can do it all in one go, but that’s not needed. Any step you take, whether walking to the car, breaks throughout the work day or steps you take in your home count.
However, the average person takes about 4000 to 5000 steps per day. And it may not be realistic to automatically expect anyone who takes 5000 steps or less to instantly aim for 10,000. In this case, think of 10,000 steps as a long-term goal mixed in with short-term goals on the way. For example, for the person at 5000 steps, having short-term goals of increasing daily walking by 1000 steps per month can get you to 10,000 steps in five months.
What is the optimal number of steps?
While the 10,000 step goal started as a marketing campaign, there have been numerous studies into whether this is the optimal amount of steps. By optimal, it means the point at which one gets the maximum benefit for the least amount of steps. Beyond the optimal point there may be minimal additional benefit for the time spent.
Whether your activity is measured in steps, time or calories, it’s clear the health benefits start from the first step (pun intended) you take. And with continued steps the benefits increase. As little as 3000 steps per day were associated with a nearly 25% lower chance of early death compared to those walking less than 2000. And the benefits continued until about 7500 steps per day (60% lower chance of early death).
Additional studies have shown that people who do more than 10,000 steps per day continue to have greater health benefits. This includes postal carriers and people from the Amish community, both groups spend a large amount of time being active on their feet throughout the day. But the gains of going from 10,000 to 15,000 steps in a day aren’t 50% better, reflecting a diminish return, or flattening of the benefit.
More recently, two studies did in fact report that approximately 10,000 steps is the optimal amount. This amount was associated with a 50% lower chance of getting dementia or experiencing an early death, and a 70% lower chance in getting certain cancers. Having less than 10,000 steps was still beneficial, but not as much.
What amount is right for you?
The recommended guidelines for physical activity state a minimum of 150 min/week of moderate to vigorous exercise. That’s about 30 minutes of brisk walking on most days. Given a moderate walking pace is about 100 steps per minute, this translates to 3000 steps for 30 minutes of walking. So if you only met the minimum recommended amount of activity, you wouldn’t even get close to 10,000 steps.
In contrast, the 10,000 step target is for all steps during the day. Not just from exercise. And if you are getting these many steps (or close to), it likely means you’re getting up walking throughout the day, meaning sitting less, which is great.
But what if you don’t like walking, or do some other form of exercise in which you can’t count steps? This could be swimming, cycling or pick-up sports. It may be hard to get in 10,000 steps in a day in addition to your exercise, which can be discouraging. However, ALL activity counts. And if it helps, you can replace some of those steps. That could mean cycling for 30-45 minutes and then aiming for 5000 steps that day. Of course, you can still aim for 10,000 steps on top of that bike ride, but that’s up to you.
Counting steps is just another way of keeping track of how much activity you do. Much like time, distance or calories. All of these reflect the volume of activity. Choose the best measure that works for you. Likewise, the best activity is the one you enjoy and will stick to. There’s no point forcing yourself to walk if you can’t stand it—you’ll most likely end up quitting. Find what you like to do and do it regularly.
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This post was originally published on September 26, 2018 and updated on September 28, 2022.
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