For a very long time, it has been understood that keeping fit meant taking 10,000 steps a day. Many fitness trackers and pedometers have been programmed to let you know when you have reached that goal. Contests and wellness programs have been focused on it.
But…get this! This idea first came on the scene in 1965 when a Japanese company made a device called Manpo-kei, which translates to 10,000 steps meter. In addition, the Japanese character for this device looked sort of like someone walking. The creators of this device thought that 10,000 steps would help people stay trim. The concept caught on and the device became popular. That is the end of the story of the origin of the 10,000 steps.
Except that it is really just the beginning. From then on, 10,000 steps has been touted as some sort of magic number for maintaining health and fitness. It has turned up everywhere, including many public health information booklets.
Guess what? There has not been ANY research on whether this is actually the case! The mind boggles.
A Harvard Health Blog of July 11, 2019 cited some recent research (May 29, 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine) which did a study on 16,741 women, average age 72.
Briefly, here’s what they found. Women who averaged about 4400 steps/day had significantly lower mortality rates during a 4.3 year follow-up period compared to the least active women who were taking about 2700 steps/day. Mortality progressively decreased as women took more steps/day before leveling off at 7500 steps/day.
Here is another tidbit of information. I had a look at 15 different national health-related organizations who would likely have some physical activity recommendations. NOT ONE mentioned 10,000 steps! Most of them suggest 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days of the week, or 2-3 days of vigorous activity, plus strength training 2-3 days a week.
To be clear, most people get around 2,000 – 4,000 steps in their daily lives. The research findings suggest that the women taking more steps were making the effort to go above and beyond. This may be where the daily 30 minute recommendation comes from. That would be 30 minutes above and beyond activities of daily living.
A few of the organizations I checked into go on to say that 60 minutes of moderate activity most days or 300 minutes total per week is even better, particularly for weight loss or weight maintenance.
At this point, let’s take a gander at the National Weight Loss Registry. These are people who have lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for at least a year. Almost all of them say they walk 60 minutes a day to help manage their weight.
How many steps do you take in 60 minutes? Around 6,000. Just so you know, taking 10,000 steps is around 5 miles, and would take the average person doing a moderate speed 1 hour, 40 minutes. If you wanted to get to the recommended 7500 steps, it would take you about an hour and 15 minutes, unless you really step up the pace. A brisk pace would be around one mile in 15 minutes instead of the moderate pace, which is one mile in 20 minutes.
Enough math for now. This may be getting confusing.
But there is something else. The study that was mentioned could not make a distinction about getting more benefits from brisk versus moderate walking. That’s because as more steps were added to the day, the effect of higher intensity of stepping got less and less significant. On the other hand, it appears that most of the steps taken were NOT in the brisk category anyway. Authors made the broad conclusion that “every step counts.”
As usual, there are some problems with the study. For one thing, only mortality was measured. There could be no implications for staying healthier, keeping weight down, or improving cognitive abilities. And, of course, the study only tracked a group of older women. At this point we cannot know what kind of results other groups of people could be getting from walking, or what would happen if they were followed for a longer period of time. Would 10,000 steps be more useful to younger groups? So far, there’s no telling.
So, let’s get to a bottom line here. Quite frankly, the biggest takeaway is that we are capable of believing “common knowledge” without it being based in fact at all! The other thing I find amazing is that this is the first bit of research on the ubiquitous belief in 10,000 steps in 55 years.
Finally, particularly for those of us who may be getting discouraged by thinking they have to hit 10,000 steps/day, let’s hope that this is just the beginning of more research on this very important concept.
Keep on truckin’,
© 2020 Kristen Carter, MS. All rights reserved.