is 10,000 steps necessary
The Last Word: Do You Really Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day?
The goal of reaching 10,000 steps per day has inspired countless movement challenges and remains the default setting on many fitness trackers. Maybe hitting that step goal, which is equivalent to about 5 miles, is part of your own wellness routine.
But does getting 10,000 steps per day really make a difference in our overall health? Or is it just another fitness trend?
The Claim About 10,000 Steps a Day
The origin of this standard is a little murky. But researchers believe the number can be traced back to 1965, when a Japanese company made a pedometer named Manpo-kei, or “10,000 steps meter” in English. As Shawn Arent, PhD, CSCS, professor and chair of the department of exercise science and director of the sport and science lab at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, explains, the rationale behind 10,000 steps was more about marketing than science.
Clearly, that marketing was wildly successful, as the recommendation to take 10,000 steps a day has become ingrained in Western culture. This inspired researchers to check if reaching that number offered any actual health benefits. Spoiler alert: It does.
The Scientific Research on the Benefits of Taking 10,000 Steps a Day
One of the most recent studies investigating the benefits of taking 10,000 steps a day was published in May 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine. The aim? To see if more daily steps are associated with fewer deaths in older women.
In the study, more than 16,500 women between ages 62 and 101 (their average age was 72) from the U.S. Women’s Health Study wore a step counter during waking hours for at least four days. Their devices measured the total steps taken per day and the intensity of their steps, which they calculated using various measures such as time spent stepping at a rate of at least 40 steps per minute. Researchers followed up with the women after four years to assess their health status.
Researchers found that women who averaged 4,400 steps per day had a 41 percent lower mortality rate than sedentary women who averaged 2,700 daily steps. Mortality rates were progressively lower with more steps taken before tapering off at 7,500 steps per day — that’s 25 percent fewer steps than the common goal of 10,000 steps. In addition, researchers didn’t find a clear link between stepping intensity and lower mortality rates after accounting for total steps per day.
Other studies have examined the potential benefits of taking 10,000 steps per day on body composition and heart health. For example, a study revealed that averaging 9,500 or more daily steps helped a group of adults who were overweight or had obesity lose about 5.3 pounds and 2 percent body fat and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol by 3 milligrams per deciliter after 36 weeks.
Despite these researched benefits, there are limitations to the 10,000-step target.
For starters, there’s more to overall health than steps. Lifestyle factors like sleep, stress management, and diet all play a role. Yet these habits and activities may not be reflected in your daily step count. “Let’s face it, if your diet is atrocious, you have poor stress management, or you’re not sleeping, well, those 10,000 steps won’t be the cure-all you need,” Dr. Arent says.
In addition, there are types of exercises that, while beneficial, won’t add much to your daily step counts, such as yoga, strength training, rowing, and cycling. This means your step total probably doesn’t provide an accurate picture of your daily movement.
The Final Word on Whether You Need 10,000 Steps a Day
“There’s nothing magical about 10,000 steps,” Arent says. It can be a great target to aim for, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of health and fitness.
“I encourage people to not focus on one number or one part of their health,” says Larry Nolan, DO, a sports medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Instead of fixating on a single number, aim to improve different factors that affect your health, such as sleep, diet, stress management, and lack of sufficient exercise.
Still, counting steps may help you stay on top of your physical activity and reduce your sitting time. “There are a lot of people who are actually shocked at how little they move in a day, so if nothing else, counting steps can be a great wake-up call,” Arent says.
You don’t have to aim for 10,000 steps necessarily, but as you get accustomed to counting steps, you may be able to identify times during the day when you can squeeze in extra movement. “Find a target that works for you and pursue it,” Dr. Nolan says.
Arent also recommends using the CDC’s physical activity guidelines to help you focus on not only quantity but also the duration and the type of movement you’re getting. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as brisk walking, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity like running, or an equivalent mix of the two every week. Be sure to do at least two full-body strength workouts per week, too.
Most important, enjoy the process. Find activities you like and remember to appreciate the things your body is capable of doing. “Movement is something that we’re fortunate enough to be able to do, and the more you do it, the longer you’ll be able to maintain that ability,” Arent says.