Do We Really Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day for Our Health?

The advice that we take 10,000 steps a day is more a marketing accident than based on science. This can save you money.

Most fitness tracking devices recommend that you take 10,000 steps a day. This is helpful advice to follow if you don’t want to gain weight. However, the goal of taking 10,000 steps, which many people think is based on science, in fact rests on coincidence and a sticky history rather than research.

According to Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, if you want to live to 100 years old, you need to exercise every day. A clock maker mass-produced a pedometer with a name that, when written in Japanese characters, resembled a walking man.

As an acronym, it means “10,000-step meter.” And by the end of the twentieth century, it had somehow become embedded in our global consciousness as the physical activity goal. But fitness trackers.

Today’s best science suggests that we do not have to take 10,000 steps a day for our health or longevity.

Take 10,000 Steps a Day for Our Health?
Take 10,000 Steps a Day for Our Health?

A 2019 study by Dr. Lee and her colleagues found that women in their 70s who took at least 4,400 steps a day reduced their risk of early death by about 40 percent, compared to women who did less than 2,700 steps per day. The risks of early death have continued to drop among the women who are walking 5,000 steps a day, but that benefit is leveling off after about 7,500 steps a day.

The results, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, show that women who achieved the magic 50,000-step target lived nearly seven years longer than women who met only 7,000 daily steps.

Another study of 5,000 middle-aged men and women of various ethnicities found that only 10,000 steps a day are not a requirement for longevity. People who walk for about 8,000 steps per day are half as likely to die from heart disease or any other cause than people who accumulate about 4,000 steps a day.

The statistical benefits of additional steps were slight. It did not hurt people to accumulate more steps beyond the 10,000-step mark, up to and beyond the 20,000-step mark. The extra steps, however, didn’t help much in protecting us against dying early.

Most of us don’t reach that 10,000 step goal anyway. Most Americans, Canadians, and others in the Western nations get few steps in a day.

And if we do manage to get to 10,000 steps, it’s likely to be fleeting. A famous study in Ghent, Belgium, gave local residents a pedometer and encouraged them to walk 10,000 steps a day for a year. Of the 660 men and women who completed the study, a little over 9 percent hit the 10,000-step daily goal by the end.

In a follow-up study four years later, very few people were still walking that much. Most people slipped back to their baseline after the exercise, so they were almost exactly the same as they were before the exercise.

Good news! By adding a little more walking, or taking a few more steps a day, most people could be on their way to getting into the physical fitness habit they’ve been looking for.

Lee, the formal physical activity guidelines released by the United States and other governments use time, not steps, as a recommendation, and suggest that we exercise for at least 150 minutes a week, or half an hour a day, in addition to any other forms of physical activity we’re already doing as part of our normal, daily lives.

We are so accustomed to using the calorie counter in our phones or computers to check how many calories we’re eating that we often forget about counting our steps. If you’re not already walking regularly, try to add at least two thousand steps to your daily routine, or more if you can manage it. This seems to be the sweet spot for step counts.

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