10,000 steps a day is a trendy goal. We humans like big, round numbers like that. They feel right.
But does taking 10,000 steps a day really have anything to do with good health?
The surprising truth is that the 10,000 number originally appeared in the 1960s when a Japanese company started selling pedometers called manpo-kei, which literally translates to "10,000-step meter." Later, studies confirmed that people who take 10,000 steps have lower blood pressure, more stable glucose levels and better moods. The number quickly caught on.
More recently, some researchers have suggested 15,000 steps might be even better. A snapshot study of Scottish postal workers found that individuals who walked an average of 15,000 steps per day had normal waistlines, healthy cholesterol levels, and a lower risk of heart disease.
Yet, most national and international health authorities don't have a daily step count recommendation. In Canada, it's recommended that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week, with no mention of a specific number of steps.
Why is that?
What's missing in the number
Setting a daily step count recommendation is problematic for three reasons.
The first is that intensity matters. Taking 10,000 slow, meandering steps isn't the same as taking 10,000 quick ones. Recent research on HIIT training suggests that sprinting in short bursts (even as little as 60 seconds) may have similar benefits to walking for an extended period of time.
There's nothing magical about 10,000 or 15,000, or any other big, round number.
This may explain why we've seen a shift toward using accelerometers over pedometers. Conceivably, a person could be taking 10,000 steps every day, never breaking a sweat and almost entirely missing out on the benefits of heart-pumping activity.
The second is that step counting is too narrow -- it fails to account for movement that's not easily quantified in steps. For instance, an hour of yoga or weight training won't be accurately reflected in a step measure.
Despite advances in fitness tracker technology, many still fail to accurately capture non-step movements, like cycling and swimming. A person could be lifting weights and spinning for 150 minutes each week, be reaping all the benefits of physical activity, and never hit 10,000 steps.
The third is that when it comes to steps, more is more.
There's nothing magical about 10,000 or 15,000, or any other big, round number. Studies have confirmed that these numbers are associated with health benefits not because they signify reaching some amazing threshold, but because they're a lot of steps.
Research has unanimously concluded that the more light activity you can do in a day, the better. Taking more steps means you're spending less time sitting, which is always a good thing. It also hopefully means you're taking more frequent breaks, which is also a good thing.
An arbitrary goal can too easily become a ceiling -- a point at which people stop for no good reason other than the fact that they hit that magic number. It's impossible to take too many steps in a day, so it doesn't make sense to set a limit.
Your daily step target shouldn't come from a study of postal workers or a Japanese pedometer maker. Because more is always better, the right amount is whatever number encourages you to take the most.
The exact right amount
For many, 10,000 is a reasonable target because it's ambitious but attainable.
However, depending on your lifestyle, 10,000 may seem discouragingly high. If you struggle to reach even 5,000, set a lower goal to start and then work your way up. Or, if you're a Scottish postal worker, 10,000 may seem too easy and you should set your sights higher.
To find the right goal for yourself, the first thing you need to do is establish a baseline. On an average day, how many steps do you typically take?
Counting steps, however many, will never alone be a good measure of physical activity.
Track your steps for a week or two and see what you average. Then set a goal that is ambitious but that with a little additional effort, you can reach. In an ideal world, your goal should provide the nudge you need to sneak in more activity. You want to look down at your tracker at dinner time and think "If I just go for a half hour walk before bed, I could reach my goal."
Once you start reaching your goal every day, you can work on setting it higher. If you can easily get in 10,000 steps a day, bump it to 11,000 or 12,000. Try 15,000 if you really want to. As long as you're pushing yourself to walk more every day, and at a brisk pace, you can be sure you're doing your mind and body some good.
The broader point
More generally, counting steps, however many, will never alone be a good measure of physical activity. No number of slow steps can replace the benefits of heart-pumping activity. Strength training is important for your muscles and bones, even if it doesn't help you hit 10,000 steps.
We should resist the urge to latch onto the big, round, trendy number and instead aim to lead an active life filled with a variety of activities. We should set a personal goal and work toward it.
And we should remember that all steps are not created equal. If you're intent on taking 10,000 a day, make sure at least a few are the fast, heart-pumping kind that leave you sweaty and winded.
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