10,000 steps: good but certainly not essential

It’s time to call BS on the idea that 10,000 steps is the gold standard of what we should be walking each day for optimal health.

It’s not.

Buy any step-tracker and you’ll find the default goal you need to aim for is 10,000 steps. It’s the magical number we never knew about from which multiple health gains head your way.

The reality is the 10,000 step thing is marketing over medicine.

It’s a given that there are huge benefits to your health from exercise. Any moving is good moving, and regular exercise has been proven to lower your risk of dying prematurely. It helps you live longer.

Do you need 10,000 steps daily?

No. Tons of quality research shows that the same benefits come with way less steps.

In an analysis of 15 different studies across four continents published in The Lancet earlier this year, researchers found for adults 60 and older, the risk of premature death levelled off at about 6,000-8,000 steps per day. More steps than that provided no additional benefit for longevity.

Adults younger than 60 saw the risk of premature death stabilize at about 8,000-10,000 steps per day.

2019 study found that more steps led to better outcomes up to about 7,500 steps per day. The average sedentary person in the study took fewer than 3,000 steps per day. When they increased that to 4,000 steps, they saw some benefits. The benefits increased with more steps until they levelled off at 7,500 steps per day.

Here’s a win. This study also looked at the intensity of exercise, how fast you are walking, and found it made little or no difference. The number of steps was more important than how vigorous the exercise was.

Perversely having a target number can work the wrong way. If the target seems too far away, it can become discouraging and so gets dropped, or others could hurt themselves in the process of reaching the magic number.

So where did the 10,000 come from?

In 1964 Japan hosted the Olympics and to take advantage of the resulting interest in fitness, a clock making company a year later introduced the world’s first pedometer branded “Manpo-kei.”  This literally translates as “10,000-step meter,” and “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day” was their marketing slogan.

Japanese walking clubs were popular at that time and the idea of a 10,000-step target caught on. We like nice round numbers and 10,000 is catchy. It took hold in Australia at the turn of the century , then the USA and before you know it, we’re living in a world where 100 minutes of walking was the daily goal according to our fitbit.

All guidelines around the world suggest that 150 mins of moderate exercise each week is of significant benefit to our health and in turn in how long we may live. Walking is the easiest and cheapest exercise we can do, and while it can be good to measure and improve on your exercise, it can be much more fun if we’re not fixated on reaching a number that is, well, pretty much just made up.