How Many Steps Should I Take a Day? (Hint: Not 10,000)
More important than counting the number of steps you take in a day is the amount of overall movement itself, according to Michael Weinrauch, MD, the chairman of cardiology at Overlook Medical Center in Summit.
“The magic number we always hear of 10,000 steps a day is a nice goal,” says Dr. Weinrauch. But it’s not the first thing he takes into consideration with each patient. The idea that people should be taking 10,000 or more steps per day has been largely disproven—experts say 7,500 is likely enough to reap the health benefits—and the research presents an entirely new argument for why you should consider setting your goal to a higher number. The more steps you take, the more likely you are to get regular movement throughout the day, which is important for your overall health.
What does science say about how many steps to take in a day?
“It became popularized amongst pedometer companies and now is popularized obviously among media but there's no actual scientific basis for 10,000 steps," says Elroy Aguiar, PhD, senior postdoctoral research associate at the Physical Activity and Health Laboratory Department of Kinesiology at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "This 10,000 steps number came from out of nowhere. I guess they roughly knew how much on average people usually do really—which is around 6,000 steps a day—and they just set an arbitrary target of 10,000, something they knew that would improve activity because it was higher than what people were currently doing." (In fact, in the 1960s, a Japanese walking club marketed its new step-counting device with a simple slogan: "Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day." And that number stuck.)
A study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, tracked the number of steps per day of nearly 17,000 older women took over a four-year period. What they found is that those who took at least 4,400 steps a day—far fewer than the standard advice of 10,000—had a 41 percent lower mortality rate than the women who took just 2,700 steps. Then the more daily steps women took after hitting 4,400 the better—until 7,500 steps, where the benefits plateaued.
Research out of UMass Amherst shows that for adults over 60, walking between 6,000 and 9,000 steps a day decreased the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attacks or strokes by a significant 40 to 50 percent, compared to those who only walked 2,000 steps per day.
And a study out of Brigham Young University that followed 120 college freshman found that the more steps participants took per day, the better their physical activity patterns were. Sedentary time dipped for participants who took 12,500 and 15,000 steps per day, and those who took 15,000 steps reduced their sedentary time by as much as 77 minutes per day. This "may have other emotional and health benefits," says the study.
According to the President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, adults should do 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise per week in order to get "substantial health benefits" from these activities. "If you translate those numbers into steps, what numbers do you actually get? It's somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 steps per day," says Dr. Aguiar.
It's important to point out that no one is advocating for taking less steps than you already do. Obviously, in general, the more active you are, the better it is for your health. Instead, this is meant to help people set more realistic goals for their lifestyles.
"There's nothing wrong with 10,000 steps. If people are achieving that you wouldn't suggest doing less," explains Dr. Aguiar. "But the important point is that the vast majority of the American population doesn't do 10,000 steps and they don't do 7,500 steps—on average in the United States, people get around 5,000 to 6,500 steps a day—so it's setting a more realistic goal."
In terms of how many health benefits you can expect, there's an inverse relationship between step count and proclivity toward things like hypertension and diabetes, meaning that the more steps you take, the lower your risk for certain issues. "Humans are not meant to be sedentary," says Chris Tomshack, DC, founder and CEO of HealthSource. "You may have heard the expression, 'sitting is the new smoking,' and it’s completely true." Excessive time spent sitting still has been linked to an increase in risk for diabetes and heart attacks, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol (not to mention back pain). Decreasing stationary time, on the other hand, has been shown to reduce cardiometabolic and inflammatory biomarkers as well as the risk of anxiety and depression.
How many steps should I take a day?
"There's no one way to think about physical activity," according to Nancy I. Williams, ScD, FACSM, co-director of the Women’s Health and Exercise Laboratory at Penn State University. You can mix and match your steps with other types of exercise to ensure you're getting enough. "If steps is an achievable goal, that is, if you can incorporate more walking more easily into your day, then increasing your step count is going to be a good goal for you," she says. "But if you physically don't have the time to get those steps in, then you might want to think about a higher intensity activity, like a spin class."
Taking 7,500 steps per day will give you free reign to consider yourself "active," according to experts, (though, again, if you're a regular member of the 10,000 steps club, keep it up). Ultimately, however, it's about finding a number that is achievable for you so that you'll stay motivated.
"Set a S.M.A.R.T. goal—a specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goal—that you can achieve," says Dr. Aguiar. "While the 10,000 steps number is very good for public health as like a single number, sometimes when dealing with an individual you have to customize and tailor it to their individual needs."
It's important to set goals for yourself that are actually achievable. "If someone has less than 5,000 steps a day, they would be considered to have a sedentary lifestyle. If they’re beginning with that number of steps a day, they’d want to move up to 7,500 to be considered moderately active," says Williams. "But you have to remember that most people will only succeed by increasing their steps by maybe 2,500, so you don’t want to set up unrealistic goals." And if you want to boost your metabolism or are looking to up your steps for weight management, 10,000 steps might not actually be enough—one study found that someone would actually need to take 15,000 steps per day to see those types of results.
"Let's say you're getting 6,000 steps and getting 30 minutes of cycling or running at the gym or weightlifting," says Dr. Aguiar. "You shouldn't worry necessarily about making 7,500 steps because you know you've done enough walking throughout the day to get you close to your goal, and you've done some additional exercise, which counts toward your 150 minutes of activity per week—that’s a better way to look at it."
There is also a difference between "moderate intensity" walking, which translates to approximately 100 steps per minute, and "vigorous intensity" walking, which translates to about 130 steps per minute. "It's not just how much you move throughout the day but also how fast you move in the sessions of walking you might do," he explains, noting that 7,500 running steps can have a totally different implication than 7,500 walking ones. "You expend more energy working at a higher intensity and so the research that we're doing right now is looking at quantifying or finding out how fast people need to walk to achieve a moderate or vigorous intensity."
How to set a daily step goal
Dr. Weinrauch recommends using a fitness tracker to get a sense of your present fitness level. “Spend the first week learning what your steps are so you get a baseline. If you’re already a super active person, 10,000 steps might be more than achievable,” he says. “But if step counting is meant to help get your fitness going or get it in check, it can be a bit unobtainable to start with such a lofty goal.” You should figure out what step count you're able to achieve every single day—consistently—and that's your starting place.
Once you’ve established that baseline, begin with making your goal to tackle an additional 1,000 steps consistently. Then, add 2,000 more, and so on. “It is such an individualized thing and really depends on the person,” he explains. Rather than focusing on the overall step goal, Dr. Weinrauch would prefer to see his patients strive for 30 or 45 minutes of walking at a brisk pace most days a week. He describes brisk as moderate exertion that changes your breathing rate, but you are still able to carry on a conversation.
Looking for a mileage goal? Dr. Weinrauch says it's more important to focus on the amount of time you’re actively moving each day. “In the beginning, you may only be able to briskly walk a mile in 30 minutes and that’s okay,” he says. “For the average person, a 20-minute mile is a good pace to keep.”
However, at the end of the day, if the step counter keeps you moving and is a motivator, Dr. Weinrauch says to keep it up. In fact, a study by John Hopkins Medicine found that the consistent use of fitness trackers can increase steps taken per day by more than a mile. “If the watch helps you get there, the watch is helpful,” he says. Just don’t sweat the 10,000 marker all the time.
Is 10,000 steps the same as a cardio workout?
Walking 10,000 steps over the course of a day is basically the same thing as a full cardio workout, right? Uh, no—not really. "It depends on what your goal is," says Dr. Aguiar, when asked if walking 10,000 steps can replace your cardio routine at the gym. "If your goal is to increase cardio fitness, then getting your 10,000 steps, especially if they're at a lower intensity, would not address your goal of increasing your fitness substantially." So, for example, if you're looking to run a faster 5K, walking 10,000 steps isn't going to do a whole lot to help you get there.
Jeff Monaco, director of education at Gold’s Gym, echoes Aguiar's sentiments that it's all about your goals—especially because your body will quickly adapt to whatever sort of regular activity you're giving it. "When the body adapts, this is typically what is referred to as a plateau," he explains, adding that when this happens, the results you'll see from whatever physical activity you're doing will start to decrease. He points to the principle of progressive overload—which states that "in order to improve one's conditioning, one must gradually train the system harder than it is accustomed to." In other words, if you want to get faster or stronger, you need to train harder than just walking the usual 10,000 steps. "Think of 10,000 steps as the minimum for daily physical activity, and additional cardio training as weekly exercise to improve fitness and overall health," says Monaco.
"Regular movement throughout the day is every bit as important as full-blown workouts," says Austin Martinez, MS, CSCS, ATC, director of education for StretchLab. "The goal should be to incorporate consistent movement throughout every day, even if it’s simply walking around or doing a few stretches at your desk," he says.
This sort of "flexible fitness," in which you're moving all day long instead of only during your gym session, has long been a pillar of health among the world's longest living communities, known as the "Blue Zones." And in the last few years, we've taken their lead and begun integrating it into our own routines—in fact, it was one of our 2020 Wellness Trends. Our trackers help us to monitor the cumulative fitness we're performing over a 24-hour period, and encourage us to get moving—or, more specifically, stepping—at intervals throughout the day to combat all that stationary behavior.
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