There is an undeniable sense of accomplishment when your FitBit or iPhone step tracker hits 10,000. Because: You did it! You’ve reached your activity goal, and can file the day away as a successfully active one. Except there’s one problem: That whole “10,000 steps” answer to the question of how many steps to take in a day is actually kind of a scam.
Yup—you read that right. The number was developed in the 1960s by a Japanese walking club while they were producing a step-counting device with a name that roughly translated to “10,000 steps meter.” They marketed the tool using the slogan: “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day,” and clearly—if our collective FitBit obsession is any indiction—that number stuck.
“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.”
Is your mind blown? Yeah, same. According to a 2004 study, this checks out. “It’s a nice round number and it’s something everybody just keeps using—they’re not necessarily really evaluating the precise point at which health benefits might start to occur in terms of steps,” says Dr. Aguiar. But I am so, let’s examine the phenomenon and how many steps you should actually get.
So at what point do health benefits of taking steps occur?
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,” explains Dr. Aguiar.
Before things get all, “WTF” over here, though, 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 towards things like hypertension and diabetes, meaning that the more steps you take, the lower your risk for certain issues.
How does this 7,500 number fit in with your other workout activities?
As someone who rarely hits 10,000 steps, I’ve always been curious about whether or not my 60 to 90 minute workout classes help cut me a break on the “being active enough” front. As in: How many steps does a back-to-back SoulCycle session technically count for?
“Let’s say you’re getting 6,000 steps and getting 30 minutes of cycling or running at the gym or weightlifting. 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,” says Dr. Aguiar.
He notes that there is also a difference between “moderate intensity” walking, which translates to approximately 100 steps per minute, and “vigorous intensity” walking, which translates to approximately 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 and 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.”
According to Nancy I. Williams, ScD, FACSM, co-director of the Women’s Health and Exercise Laboratory at Penn State University, “there’s no one way to think about physical activity,” meaning that 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.”
What’s the real step goal you should be working toward?
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 on keepin’ on with that), but ultimately it’s about finding a number that is achievable for you so that you’ll stay motivated.
“Set a smart 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.”
If you’re sitting at a desk for 9 hours a day, it may feel impossible to all of a sudden double your step count—and that’s okay. 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. So 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 these types of results.
So, bottom line: Figure out your current activity level, set a goal for yourself that is slightly higher, and get steppin’.
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