Keep it Moving! But Is 10,000 Steps A Day The Right Goal?
Are 12,000 steps better, or will 6,000 work equally well?
In the last decade, we’ve all been watching our steps. From casual strollers in the park to purposeful striders in the mall, armed with phones, watches, wearables or pedometers, walkers are everywhere, tracking their daily tallies to reach the magical 10,000 step mark. However, as recently reported in Nature, few people are actually reaching it. The average number of steps achieved daily is approximately 5,000 worldwide and slightly lower in the U.S. at 4,800.
Do we all need to step up our efforts?
Or maybe we can all take a step back and consider how 10,000 steps a day became the holy grail of fitness walking – and why optimal outcomes may well be possible at lower numbers.
You may be surprised to learn that the number originated at the Tokyo Olympics in the 1960s with manpo-kei, Japanese pedometers, which were then marketed to the country’s walking enthusiasts. The term, which translates to ‘10,000 steps meter’ in English, gradually became the accepted standard for optimal fitness in the U.S. and was adopted by the American Heart Association. Identifying an achievable target number, posits Catrine Tudor-Locke, PhD, behavior researcher at the University of Massachusetts, was key to spreading the word about the health benefits of walking.
Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, was an early booster of the 10,000 step goal, saying: “That specific number of steps seems to help break down insulin resistance, an underlying cause of Type 2 diabetes.”
Years of research followed building a solid case for the role of walking in lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, improving cholesterol, enhancing mood and easing mental stress – with some finding that these could occur well below the 10,000-step threshold. Some of the most noteworthy studies:
- A 2019 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that women in their 70s who walked only 4,400 steps a day reduced their risk of premature death by about 40 percent, compared to women completing 2,700 or fewer steps a day. The risks for early death continued to drop among the women walking more than 5,000 steps a day, but benefits plateaued at about 7,500 daily steps. Study leader Dr. I-Min Lee agrees that taking 10,000 steps a day can sound daunting. “But we found that even a modest increase in steps taken is tied to significantly lower mortality in older women,” she said. “Our study adds to a growing understanding of the importance of physical activity for health and amplifies the message: Step more—even a little more is helpful.”
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital research showed that a brisk walking program nearly cut in half the risk of early death in breast cancer patients.
- An American College of Cardiology study of 89,000 post-menopausal women over a 10-year period showed that walking for at least 40 minutes several times per week at an average to fast pace is associated with a near 25% drop in the risk of heart failure. “The benefit appears to be consistent regardless of a woman’s body weight or whether she engages in other forms of exercise besides walking,” said Somwail Rasla, MD, study leader. “There may be a misconception that simply walking isn’t enough, but our analysis shows we can reach a comparable energetic expenditure through walking that we gain from other types of physical activity.”
- A Harvard Health retrospective study including more than half a million participants found that those who walked regularly over the course of 11 years had a 30% reduction in risk of angina, heart attack or bypass surgery, as well as an overall 30% reduction in risk of death.
So is more better when it comes to stepping out? That depends on your health and wellness goals. Consider these options:
New to exercise or returning from injury
Start slowly to avoid burnout or further injury. Determine your baseline by measuring number of steps you take each day over the course of a week. The Mayo Clinic recommends adding 1,000 daily steps each week.
While calorie reduction is the proven path to weight loss, completing 10,000 steps each day will burn additional calories, and is most effective at helping you stay at your desired weight.
As a general goal, aim for at least 30 minutes of walking or other physical activity each day, either at one time or spread out in several short sessions. Keep in mind that any amount of activity is better than none, and accumulated activity throughout the day adds up to a health benefit. Try this method used by a popular wearable: take at least 250 steps each hour, and you may be able to add 1,000 to 2,000 steps per day to your total.
Walk with purpose because cadence matters. A walking pace around 100 steps a minute that leaves you slightly out of breath is recommended by experts. Not surprisingly, intensity counts too, so try a faster pace for short intervals, or walk up hills rather than on a flat surface.
There’s no age when walking is not essential, so whatever your goal, we urge you to get started. As ancient philosopher Lao Tzu wisely said: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Need more inspiration? Consider this thought from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
Sources: Nature, JAMA, Harvard Health, American College of Cardiology, Mayo Clinic