10,000 Steps a Day Started as a Marketing Scheme—Here’s What It Teaches Us About Goal-Setting

By now, the notion that 10,000 steps per day are ideal for optimal health is almost considered fact. Fitness trackers automatically suggest a daily 10,000-step goal, but this number isn’t rooted in science—the phenomenon of walking 10,000 steps a day started because of a 1960s Japanese marketing campaign.

Following the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, fitness became a popular pastime in Japan, leading to an increase in walking groups. Walking was an easy physical activity: It required no special equipment, could be done any time and anywhere, and gave plenty of opportunities for people to spend time with friends. A Japanese clock company hoping to capitalize on the popularity of walking groups created a pedometer and gave it a name that, when written in Japanese characters, looked a little like a running man. The name translates in English to 10,000-steps meter.

Science has since found that 10,000 steps a day isn’t necessary for every person. As with all aspects of health, the number of daily steps that could improve your health changes based on factors like your sex and age. I-Min Lee, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, found in her research that only 4,400 daily steps were enough to lower the risk of death in women in their 70s. Another study found that 8,000 steps per day were enough to lower premature death risk by 50 percent in middle-aged men and women.

Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago, tells this story in her upcoming book Get It Done. We can learn a lesson about motivation from this marketing campaign that eventually influenced common knowledge about health, she writes.

Although the 10,000 steps a day target wasn’t rooted in science, it motivated generations to move more. Having a number to track and a way to track it is incredibly powerful for motivation, Dr. Fishbach tells Well+Good. Numerical targets put easy-to-measure parameters around a goal—they tell us “how much” and “by when.”

The Tokyo Olympics ignited a fitness goal for people in Japan, but it took a pedometer ad to give people a target to reach toward. Similarly, whenever you make a New Year’s resolution to “exercise more,” you’re setting a vague goal. One reason it’s difficult to achieve goals like this is because you have no way to measure your progress. Numerical targets like 10,000 steps a day stick in our minds because they’re easy to quantify and measure, which helps to increase our motivation. Dr. Fishbach says we often set numerical targets without even realizing that’s what we’re doing. For example, imagine you resolve to save $10,000 this year. Your actual goal is to save money, and $10,000 is your target.

“Numerical targets allow you to see that you’re halfway through, or 10 percent into the goal,” Dr. Fishbach tells Well+Good. “Further, once you set a numerical target, you see anything below it as a loss, which you deeply care to avoid. You’d hate to stop 100 steps from your step target.”

As we learned from the 10,000-step meter, numerical targets are immensely motivating for physical fitness, but Dr. Fishbach suggests finding similar targets for other goals, too. It’s important that the targets you set are challenging, measurable, actionable, and self-set.

“You shouldn’t expect to be able to reach a good target every time, but at least some of the times (challenging), you’ll know for sure whether you’ve reached it (measurable) and exactly what to do (actionable),” Dr. Fishbach says. Finally, it’s important that you feel ownership of the goal — you won’t be as motivated to complete a goal your boss or a physical trainer set for you, for example. “If you consult an expert, have them offer a range so that you can choose the specific number,” Dr. Fishbach says. Being able to set the target yourself is important to your motivation.

Although science didn’t pinpoint 10,000 steps as the ideal number for health, it was a powerfully motivating goal because 10,000 steps are challenging for just about anyone (that’s about 5 miles of walking every day). A step goal with a specific number is also easily measurable, especially if you have a pedometer or fitness tracker, and it’s actionable because you know your goal every day. And although it’s popular, no one forces you to walk 10,000 steps a day—the choice is yours, so you feel like you let yourself down when you don’t accomplish it.

Even knowing that 4,400 steps may be sufficient depending on your age, Dr. Fishbach recommends aiming higher. “Set it to 5,000, and then let yourself fall short sometimes,” she says.

Targets also increase our motivation because they set a finish line. Take the example of marathon runners. It’s considered impressive for a runner to finish a marathon in four hours or less. Dr. Fishbach cites a study in her book that analyzes data from about 10 million runners. It found that significantly more people finish a marathon in just under four hours (3:59) than just over (4:01). With the four-hour target in mind, runners close to their goal push harder close to the finish line.

The psychology of good targets hinges on the understanding that people really hate loss, and just missing your goal feels like a huge loss. Think about the New Year’s resolution to save $10,000. If you manage to save $9,900, you’d probably feel pretty terrible because you just missed your target. But if you save $10,100, that extra $100 doesn’t give you much extra joy. Hitting your target is a psychological reward.

Knowing that targets are important, you can now set them for any goal you’d like. Just remember to make them challenging, measurable, and actionable, and make sure you’re setting goals and targets because you want to, not because you feel pressure from someone else. If you can answer the questions “how much” and “by when” when setting a goal, you’ll set yourself up for success.

You can pre-order a copy of Dr. Fishbach’s book, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation, on Amazon

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