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Taking 10,000 steps a day may be a healthy fitness goal, but it’s also an arbitrary one

MinnPost file photo by Steve Date
Over the years, health organizations, including the World Health Organization, the American Heart Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, decided to adopt the 10,000-steps-a-day mantra, apparently without any strong scientific rationale.

For many of us — especially those who’ve invested in a FitBit, an Apple watch or other wearable device — taking 10,000 steps each day has become more than an exercise goal. It’s become an established fixture of what we perceive as a physically fit lifestyle, and a sign that we’re taking healthy living seriously.

But, as with so many of our other longstanding health-related beliefs, few of us ask where the 10,000-steps-a-day goal came from. Why that particular number of steps? Why not 5,000 — or 15,000?

In an article published Monday in the Guardian newspaper, health journalist David Cox examines the source of the claim that 10,000 daily steps are needed to be healthy. As he explains, the source is rather spurious.

“10,000 steps is a completely arbitrary figure, one that originates from a successful Japanese marketing campaign in the mid-60s,” he writes. “In an attempt to capitalize on the immense popularity of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the company Yamasa designed the world’s first wearable step-counter, a device called manpo-kei,which translates as ‘10,000-step meter.’”

“There wasn’t really any evidence for it at the time,” David Bassett, an exercise physiologist at the University of Tennessee, told Cox.  “They just felt that was a number that was indicative of an active lifestyle and should be healthy.”

Over the years, health organizations, including the World Health Organization, the American Heart Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, decided to adopt the 10,000-steps-a-day mantra, apparently without any strong scientific rationale.

Writes Cox:

Indeed, most of the scientific studies that have been conducted to try to test whether 10,000 steps a day is optimal for health are themselves relatively arbitrary. They simply compare people who have done 10,000 steps a day with those who have done far lower numbers, such as 3,000 or 5,000, and then measure calories burned, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

“This number keeps being reinforced because of the way research studies are designed,” says Prof Catrine Tudor-Locke of the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “So, the study might find that 10,000 helps you lose more weight than 5,000 and then the media see it and report: ‘Yes, you should go with 10,000 steps,’ but that could be because the study has only tested two numbers. It didn’t test 8,000, for example, and it didn’t test 12,000.”

Minimums and maximums

Does it matter, though? After all, too many people engage in too little exercise these days, so why not encourage everyone to aim for 10,000 steps?

As experts told Cox, rapidly ramping up to that number of daily steps may be medically unwise for individuals living with certain chronic illnesses or for older individuals who’ve been sedentary. For other people, 10,000 steps may seem like an unreachable goal, and they may then give up on increasing their physical activity.

A lower number, therefore, may be both beneficial and more realistic, although evidence suggests that for most people, not getting at least 5,000 steps per day reflects a sedentary lifestyle.

“Scientists who have attempted to calculate an exact number of steps that equate to the public health guidelines of 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, have found that we should perhaps aim for a minimum of 7,500 steps,” writes Cox.

On the other hand, some research suggests a much higher minimum number is needed for optimum health.

“Scientists who have studied the Amish people in rural Canada, who use no motorized forms of transport, have found that they average 14,000-18,000 steps a day, while a study of Japanese patients with type 2 diabetes from the mid-90s found that those who average about 19,000 steps a day had far better outcomes compared with those who remained largely sedentary,” Cox reports.

All in the timing

Research also suggests that it’s the rate, or frequency, of the steps taken, rather than their number, that is most important for good health.

“When intensity’s better, your heart is pounding a little faster, more blood goes through your body, things are crossing the cell wall that need to; all these things are happening quicker,” Tudor-Locke told Cox.

Her research suggests that we need to walk at a pace of 100 steps per minute for exercise to be beneficial, she added.

FMI: You can read Cox’s article at the Guardian’s website.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 09/05/2018 - 09:38 am.

    Thank you! I requested this article last December.[1] Evidently Asians like to call big numbers 10,000. Now I just have to learn how to walk correctly. Probably there’s a YouTube video by a physical therapist that will do the trick.


  2. Submitted by ian wade on 09/06/2018 - 03:26 pm.

    10,000 steps is an adequate benchmark. It’s five miles, give or take, and maintaining current caloric intake, should result in a loss of one pound a week. Shave off another 500 calories a day which isn’t that difficult and a person should shed an extra pound per week. The key is the speed (brisk) form of the walk (pumping of arms similar to cross country skiing) and maintaining consistency.

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