Does the 10,000-step a day rule really apply to our health?

We are often recommended to take 10,000 steps a day by fitness tracking devices. In truth, the goal of walking 10,000 steps, which many of us believe is based on science, is a product of coincidence and sticky history rather than research. 

The 10,000-step target was popularized in Japan in the 1960s by I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with expertise on step counts. Using a Japanese name that resembled a walking man, a clock manufacturer mass-produced a pedometer after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to capitalize on interest in fitness. It also translates as “10,000-steps meter,” producing a walking goal that somehow became embedded in our global consciousness – and fitness trackers.

However, the latest science shows we do not need to walk 10,000 steps per day to maintain good health. 

A study published in 2019 by Dr Lee and colleagues found that women in their 70s who walked as few as 4,400 steps a day reduced their risk of premature death by about 40 percent, compared to those who walked just 2,700 steps daily or less. When the women took more than 7,500 steps daily, the risks of premature death continued to drop, but benefits plateaued at about 5,000 daily steps. Therefore, older women who completed fewer than half of the mythical 10,000 daily steps lived significantly longer than those who covered even less ground.

In another, a more extensive study conducted last year of almost 5,000 middle-aged women and men, it was concluded that 10,000 steps per day do not guarantee longevity. Researchers found that people who walked for about 8,000 steps a day were half as likely to die from heart disease or any other cause as those who walked for 4,000 steps. Additionally, the benefits of increasing daily steps were minimal, so it didn’t hurt people to walk more, up to and beyond the 10,000-step mark. Moreover, the extra measures did not significantly impact the chances of dying young. 

Our achievement of reaching the 10,000 step mark is ephemeral, even if we reach it. Local citizens in Ghent, Belgium, were given pedometers in 2005 and encouraged to walk at least 10,000 steps every day for one year as part of a famous study. The study included 660 men and women, and approximately 8% of them achieved their goal of 10,000 steps per day by the end of it. Then, a follow-up study showed that most people didn’t continue to stride that much four years later. Almost all of the participants had fallen back to their baseline, talking about the same number of steps as they had at the beginning of the study. 

Even adding a few thousand extra steps to our daily step counts most days would be a reasonable, sufficient, and achievable goal, Dr. Lee said. The United States and other governments offer formal physical activity guidelines based on time, not steps, and recommend exercising for at least 150 minutes a week, or a half-hour most days, in addition to moves we do regularly. Based on the average person’s step count, that’s about 16,000 steps per week, or around 2,000 to 3,000 steps a day. (Two thousand steps equal approximately a mile.) On an average day, many of us take about 5,000 steps during household activities such as shopping and housework. Adding another 2,000 to 3,000 steps would put us at 7,000 to 8,000 steps, which, Dr Lee noted, seems to be the sweet spot for step counts.

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