10,000 steps a day has been long portrayed as the “optimal number” we should aim for. Why?

Where does it come from?

The idea of 10,000 steps stems back to Japan in the 1960’s. In the lead up to the 1964 Olympic Games, a pedometer introduced by the company Yasama, aimed to get the people of Tokyo moving more. 10,000 steps was actually an arbitrary figure – chosen as it was a well-rounded number, helping with the marketing of the product. Some research at the time had shown 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day had the potential to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and so the figure was born from this. Now all fitness trackers base their recommendations of daily activity as the number of steps taken and often score it out of 10,000.

Should we still be aiming for it?

There is no doubt that walking is a great form of exercise. It is free, accessible and safe to do. It can be a good place to start for those in pain or who are new to exercise. The debate is not whether walking 10,000 steps is good for us but rather, should we be fixating on such a specific number? Should we not be thinking of two key questions:

“How many steps are too few”?

“How many steps are enough”?

The current goal of 10,000 steps does not take into account the intensity of the walking. There will be additional health benefits for those walking briskly or up a steep hill, compared to those pottering around the garden. This is an important consideration, as many people use their smart watches/pedometers to try and improve their cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. However if the intensity is not high enough, they may not be achieving this. 

The world health organisation suggests a MINIMUM of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. This should be done at a moderate to high intensity in order to be effective. Walking can certainly count towards this but there needs to be some additional specifications regarding the intensity.

A study conducted by Tudor-Locke et al (2011) looked at this in more detail. They concluded healthy adults walk an average of  between 4,000 and 18,000 steps per day. This is dependent on age, physical fitness and the presence of disability. Furthermore, they found that 100 steps per minute is a reasonable baseline to use when considering what is classed as “moderate” intensity. This equates to a minimum of 3,000 steps over around 30 minutes. If someone is able to achieve this every day, in addition to other forms of exercise (strength training, swimming etc), they are classed as meeting the government guidelines. Completing more than 3,000 is seen as a bonus.

The conclusions of this study are important. Whilst it shows that 10,000 is not an unreasonable number, it also highlights that there is room for variety. Someone who is new to exercise may need to build up to this gradually and it is important that they do not feel pressure to always reach 10,000. Particularly if they are also engaging in other forms of exercise.

Despite some drawbacks to the 10,000 step goal, even walking at a lower intensity is still good for the body. It can help to counteract the negative effects of sitting and help with weight management. It can also be good for the mind – clearing the head and reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.

In conclusion, there is no strong evidence to back up 10,000 steps per day. It is an average but a number that is dependent upon many different factors. Many of which are not made known in the world of fitness trackers and pedometers. 

That being said, keep up your walking! If you are covering over 5,000 a day at a moderate or high intensity – you are doing a good job. If this is all you do – try to think of other forms of exercise that you may enjoy and add it in. Any more on top of this is a bonus and your body will thank you for it!

Thanks for reading.

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