Fact or Fiction: 10,000 steps a day is better for your health

Woman smiling while enjoying her walk

10,000 steps/day.

It’s been ingrained into our brains as the gold standard for how much we should be moving each day.

There is a whole industry built around it.

Do you remember the pedometers you use to clip on to your belt?

Now we have a range of fitness trackers, from Fitbit® to Garmin® and even our smartphones track our steps.

For many it has been a great incentive to get people moving (and sell a product) and to be more health conscious, even creating “healthy” competitions amongst friends, family and co-workers.

For some this number can be hard to reach. And the downside for some may be that if they repeatedly fail to meet the 10,000 step goal they may give up on it altogether.

Walking is a fundamental part of our daily life and as such is a big focus with public health activity guidelines. It can be easy to build up steps through the day during household chores, work, child care, errands and transportation. Walking for exercise is the most frequently reported leisure activity.

Man walking over wooden bridge away from camera

So where does this magical number come from?

In 1965, a Japanese company Yamasa Tokei invented the first pedometer and named it the Manpo-kei, or “10,000 steps meter”, because it sounded good. It became a great marketing tool, with the concept popularized around the world, becoming one of the key metrics for health.

Walking is great for our health. We know this. Movement is Medicine. Anything that gets us moving has a myriad of health benefits – both physical and mental.

But do we really need to hit 10,000 steps a day to be healthy?

There are some perks – according to the research.

It’s an easy number for people to remember, walking is linked to health benefits and walking is an accessible activity for many people. Many of us have an instinct to avoid unnecessary activity, so we may need a nudge to get started.

A researcher from Harvard Medical School wanted to look further into the science behind this number and its impact on one’s health. Her study published in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at activity levels in older women (62-101) who tend to be less active.

What did they find?

  • Sedentary women average 2,700 steps/dayWomen who averaged 4,400 steps/day had a 41% reduction in mortality
  • Mortality rates progressively improved before levelling off around 7,500 steps/day
  • When comparing the most active group to the least active group there were 9 fewer deaths (per 1000).

Based on this research we could postulate that you need to walk 7,500 steps/day if mortality is your biggest concern!

The limitation of this study was that it didn’t account for how many steps are needed to maximise our quality of life, physical condition and cognitive function.

So what conclusions can we draw from this study?

If you’re sedentary, add 2,000 more steps/day so you are at least hitting 4,400 steps/day (these can be spaced over your day).

Man vacuuming/cleaning sofa

A few great ways to get more steps in:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Park further away from your destination so you can add a few more steps
  • Get off the bus one stop earlier
  • Take an extra trip when bringing in the groceries.
  • Take a walk on your lunch break
  • Household chores

These study findings are further supported by research from the American Heart Association (AHA). They consider walking a safe and easy way to improve health and fitness, including cardiovascular health. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both.

In the AHA study looking at 732 women they found that:

  • Those who took more steps in short spurts lived longer, regardless of how many steps they had in longer, uninterrupted bouts (benefits levelled off at 4,500 steps/day).
  • Compared to no daily steps, each initial increase of 1,000 steps/day was associated with a 28% decrease in death.
  • A 32% decrease in heath was noted in participants who took more than 2,000 steps/day in uninterrupted bouts.

What can we take away from this?

You don’t need to get all your steps in one go.

This is especially important if you are dealing with either an acute or chronic injury or you are just getting started to improve your physical activity levels.

Pace yourself, 20-30 minutes of easy walking can yield you 2,000 – 4,000 steps/day.

Add that to your incidental walking (household chores, etc) and your laughing!

This is further supported by a study from Oregon State University that suggests that if you struggle to reach 10,000 steps a day, a smaller number, at moderate or greater intensity can have health benefits too.

The average person takes between 5,000 and 7,000 steps per day.

They have found that it is helpful if 3,000 of the steps come at a brisk pace and limiting sedentary time also helps play a role in optimising health.

People walking along a path, view of lower half of bodies

When it comes to weight loss does walking 10,000 steps/day help?

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t!

According to a study from Brigham Young University where they looked at groups of University students walking either 10,000, 12,500 or 15,000 steps/day, six days a week for 24 weeks while they had their weight and caloric intake tracked. The average weight gain in the first academic year of University of 1 to 4kg is commonly seen. In this study, the students gained an average of 1.5kg.

We can see that walking had no significant impact on weight loss – exercise alone is not the most effective tool to lose weight.

And if we think about University life: food quality intake, alcohol consumption, stress, sleep quality, there are many factors which can lead to weight gain.

What it did do was have a positive impact on physical activity patterns. Students were walking an average of 9,600 steps/day prior to the study and the same if not more than their study group by the end.

If you want to lose weight, walking is a great way to improve your physical activity level, but changing our diet is key. Other things to consider – sleep, hydration and managing stress. Combining all of these will lead to the best results.

Should we be asking a different question? How about how many steps per day are enough for adults?

The data indicates that healthy adults normally take between 4,000 and 18,000 steps/day and that 10,000 steps is reasonable in this population.

Another layer to the question then becomes, how are your steps/day associated with various health outcomes.

Mercer et al. reported that women walking greater than 7,500 steps/day had a 50% lower prevalence of depression than women taking less than 5,000 steps/day. In men, those who walked greater than 12,500 steps/day also had a 50% reduction in depression.

Schmidt et al. reported that individuals taking less than 5,000 steps/day had a significantly higher prevalence of a number of adverse cardio-metabolic risk factors than those taking higher steps/day.

In a study looking at overweight individuals they found that accumulating at least 10,000 steps/day over 12 weeks was associated with an improvement in physical health and mood.

Woman enjoying the health benefits of walking her dog with coffee in hand along the water

So after a review of some key articles on the topic of step count, there is still quite a range in the recommendations, but from what we can see 10,000 steps is not the magic number for everyone, depending on the health benefits one is after.

The great thing about walking is that it’s an easy and accessible activity option for most people. It has a range of benefits, from improving muscle strength, range of motion, blood flow, balance, mood, sleep and aids in health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis.

At a minimum, we want to aim for 5,000 steps/day.

For more health benefits, between 7,000 to 8,000 steps/day offers greater longevity.

Adding more steps to your day upward to 10,000 steps may further benefit your overall physical health and mental well-being.

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