The 10,000 Steps Myth

Do you really need to take that many steps every day to stay in good shape?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Doyou really need to take 10,000 steps a day to stay in great shape? And where did that magic number come from, anyway?

According to a Harvard professor of epidemiology, I-Min Lee, the notion of walking 10,000 daily steps finds its roots in a branding campaign for a Japanese pedometer. The Japanese writing for 10,000 looks like a person walking.

Manufacturers of tracking products and sneaker companies have adopted the number as a catchy way to market their products.

While a clever marketing campaign, many people cannot find the time or muster the endurance to walk 10,000 steps a day. 

In her research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Lee related that women in the study averaging 4,400 daily steps experienced lower mortality rates during the study than those who logged only 2,700 steps. But the positive effect plateaued at 7,500 steps. Going for the 10,000 steps did not seem to bring additional benefit.

The study included 16,000 American women.

“I’m not aware of hard evidence that 10,000 is the ideal,” said Peter Obourn, osteopathic physician specializing in sports medicine at URMC Orthopedics. “Movement and exercise are what it’s about. Some will be able to tolerate walking and some won’t.”

For people with arthritic knees and hips, for example, swimming or water aerobics may be activities that they can perform longer and more regularly than walking. Obourn prefers to take a more generalized approach to increasing activity for fitness than rigidly adhering to a specified number of steps.

Cameron Apt is an athletic trainer and exercise specialist with URMC. “The [10,000] number doesn’t have anything behind it,” he says.

“The number doesn’t have anything behind it,” said Cameron Apt, athletic trainer and exercise specialist with URMC. “It’s a good number, but it doesn’t have anything behind it. What’s important is if you’re moving. That’s the biggest thing, whether a walk of 10,000 steps or if you go to the gym and work out.”

He said that for those keeping track, the number of miles walked can prove a more accurate indicator of activity than steps. People taking smaller steps would register more activity than those with longer strides, for example. Pedometers also do not register the briskness of the walking. Leisurely strolls have a different effect than brisk walking, with the arms pumping and swift striding.

To maintain a healthy level of activity, most people need 30 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. This can include designated periods of activity, such as time spent engaging in a sport or other movement, or short, frequent spurts of activity, such as lifting free weights before breakfast, and going for a 15-minute walk after lunch and dinner.

For people who need to increase their level of fitness and/or lose weight, additional exercise at an increased level of vigor will be necessary, along with proper nutrition. 

If tracking steps on a device helps provide motivation, there’s no harm in using it. Some fitness apps build in a social facet where walkers can compete with others’ logged steps. Most allow users to compare their own number of steps per day over time. 

But missing the 10,000 steps goal should not kindle discouragement. Any amount of physical activity is healthful and better than none. Choosing a physical activity or sport that is enjoyable helps ensure sufficient activity each day.