Throughout our lives, we’re constantly bombarded with medical advice. You may have heard that you should be taking 10,000 steps a day in order to maintain your health. This is the equivalent of five miles or 100 minutes of brisk walking per day at a rate of 100 steps per minute. Does this recommendation have any scientific basis and how true is it? Read on to find out.
Origins of the Recommendation
The suggestion of taking 10,000 steps a day originated in Japan, in the 1960s, just before the Tokyo Olympics of ’64. During that time, pedometers became a huge trend as the country was in the Olympic spirit. One company named their pedometer “manpo-kei,” which translates to “10,000 step meter.” That number seemed to have stuck with people and has since then been a daily target for many. Some popular fitness devices and pedometers of today, such as those by Fitbit, even come with a default of 10,000 steps.
So, the origins of this recommendation don’t seem to be scientifically based at all. However, that didn’t stop the figure from being published countless times by various sources. It also seems to stick with people because it is a round number.
Just because the origins of the 10,000 step target are not scientific, it doesn’t mean that it should be completely disregarded. There are many studies supporting the recommendation. One study, for example, showed that middle-aged males who took 10,000 steps a day saw a significant decrease in blood pressure. Another study showed that overweight women who gradually increased the number of steps they took (to eventually take 10,000) improved their glucose levels. Yet another study showed that overweight adults who took 10,000 steps a day showed significant improvements in their overall weight. In general, walking has many other benefits besides physical health, too. For example, a 2001 study showed that sedentary ethnic-minority women who walked more had improved vigor, indicating an increase in positive mental health and well-being. So, walking has been shown clinically to improve both physical and mental health.
While no studies show a disadvantage of taking 10,000 steps a day, there are few studies which show little to no changes in health from walking. For example, one 2006 study showed that sedentary adults who walked twice a week for 45 minutes decreased their systolic blood pressure, but showed no change in fitness, body mass, waist/hip circumference, or diastolic blood pressure. This result, however, may be due to the fact that the participants selected their own walking speed and intensity. It has been suggested that in order to see the positive health benefits of taking 10,000 steps daily, about 2,000 to 4,000 of them must be done at a brisk pace.
Consider Your Current Physical Activity Levels
Is 10,000 really the magic number? The simple answer is no. Why? Think of how different we all are. You may be super athletic, going for morning jogs and playing a game of tennis every afternoon, but if you reduced your number of steps to 10,000, it obviously won’t be beneficial to you. On the other hand, if you’re already fairly active (i.e. you take about 8,000 steps daily) and increase your number of steps to reach the 10,000 target, you probably won’t see as much increase in benefits (as a person who doesn’t move around much) but it definitely can’t do you any harm either.
Adjust for Individual Differences
We all come in various shapes and sizes and we all have different genetic backgrounds. If we were to go to a doctor, they wouldn’t recommend us all to take the same doses of the same medication. They would look at our body weight, our health background and various other factors. Since that’s the case, why do we believe that we should all be taking the same number of steps every day? A healthy, tall person with long legs would have no problem taking 10,000 steps a day if they put in the effort but a shorter person may have trouble reaching that target. Additionally, the 10,000 steps target may not be suitable for seniors or those with chronic illnesses. Some studies even suggest that 10,000 steps may not be enough for children, especially in Western societies where obesity poses a threat.
While 10,000 steps a day has been shown to be beneficial, it’s not the only thing that can save your health, in terms of physical activity. The 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines recommends that all healthy adults strive to partake in moderate intensity aerobics for at least 150 minutes per week (that’s about 21 minutes each day). Other studies have shown that even daily light physical activity (just 15 minutes per day) can reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease, increasing life expectancy by 3 years. Perhaps less attention should be focused on meeting the specific target of 10,000 steps a day and more attention should be focused on regular physical activity. Many see the 10,000 step goal as a way to encourage individuals to get up and get moving.
Technically, there are many forms of physical activity which don’t require you to take many steps. Such activities include swimming, Tai Chi and cycling. These can’t be accurately recorded by a pedometer but they still burn calories and have all the benefits of walking, if not more. You can always combine other types of exercises with walking throughout your daily routine.
How to increase your step count
If you live a rather sedentary lifestyle and would like to try to take 10,000 steps a day, you can with a few adjustments to your daily routine. First, you have to make the commitment. One of the best ways to solidify a promise or plan is to put it in writing. Perhaps you can keep a fitness journal, noting your progress each day. Second, invest in a pair of comfortable sneakers, with proper arch support, because the last thing you want is to injure your feet. The next step is to actually take a step. Instead of driving to the corner store, walk. Instead of taking the elevator at work, take the stairs. If you’re looking for a parking spot, choose the one furthest away from the entrance. Once you begin finding opportunities to walk, you’ll find that it’s easier to reach 10,000 steps than you thought. You can also set reminders on your phone to get moving if you’re typically at a desk all day. Don’t forget to reward yourself, as well, for meeting your goals (but be sure give yourself a healthy reward such as a delicious smoothie instead of a chocolate bar).
Taking 10,000 steps a day is great for your health; studies have shown that doing so can lower your blood pressure, improve your glucose levels and help you to lose weight. However, it is important to pay attention to the intensity at which you’re walking. There are no studies which show that taking 10,000 steps per day can harm a relatively healthy person in any way. However, taking 10,000 steps daily is not an absolute necessity. We’re all physically different and so taking 10,000 steps may be easier (and more beneficial) for some than others. Doctors agree that as long as you make an effort to be more active than you were yesterday (or continue being active if you already are), you’ll reap the benefits. In fact, researchers found that if inactive people exercised just 15 minutes per day, it can reduce their risk of numerous health concerns.
Additionally, there are other ways of getting the benefits of exercise without literally taking 10,000 steps. For example, you could swim, take up rowing or even dancing! These types of physical activities are beneficial to your health and burn calories, just as walking does. If you’d like to take on the 10,000 step challenge, anyway, it is quite simple to begin doing so. Just be on the lookout for any opportunities there might be to walk (such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator) and commit yourself to reaching the target.