Doing 10000 steps a day has long been touted as an ideal way of improving your health and wellness but is there any evidence for this and where exactly did the 10000 steps a day target come from?
A long time ago in a country far far away (Japan)
In the early 1960s a Doctor (Yoshiro Hatano) at the Kyushu University of Health and Welfare was concerned that despite physical activity being part of the countries cultural heritage, there was a rise in obesity in the Japanese population. This being the case he set out to find a way to calculate the number of calories burned while exercising in order to help his countrymen become more active and hopefully thinner and healthier.
Dr Hatano's research found that the average person walked 3,500 to 5,000 steps a day. Based on this, he made an assumption that increasing the amount of steps to 10,000 would burn an extra 500 kcals a day (about 20% of the average caloric intake) and doing so would be beneficial for both weight loss and health. And so the 10000 step target was born.
Before the days of the modern activity tracker
Picking up on the study and with the Japanese government wanting to encourage more exercise, the Yamasa Corporation created a pedometer which they called the man-po-kei. This translates literally as the 10000 step gauge. (In Japanese Man means ‘10,000,’ po ‘step,’ and kei means ‘meter’ or ‘gauge.) This device gained popularity in Japanese walking clubs which further cemented the 10000 step target into the culture.
Flash forward to the 21st century
50+ years after the Japanese introduction of the manpo-kei, activity tracking has made a comeback. With the advent of smart watches and dedicated activity trackers such as the Fitbit, tracking steps has again become de rigour and 10000 steps remains the target that most devices default to.
But does half a century of advancement in exercise science still support the 10000 step target?
Are 10000 enough?
Let's look at the evidence. Firstly 10000 steps a day is an attainable target for most healthy adults. It signifies more activity than the average person would normally do in a day and there is evidence that meeting this target may deliver health benefits for many. However, the 10000 step target is relatively arbitrary. Remember it was chosen based on the assumption it would lead to a particular increase in daily energy expenditure. It was also a nice round number and easily marketable. Very few studies have looked at alternative goals to 10,000 steps per day and no studies seem to have evaluated the effects of different steps per day goals.
Also it's worth noting that although attainable for most healthy adults, 10000 steps may be too high or unsustainable for certain sections of the population (namely the elderly and those with chronic diseases) and may also be too low for other groups especially children and younger people.
There's also the question of how vigorous or otherwise the steps should be. Not all steps are equal. 10000 brisk steps might be more beneficial than 10000 plodding steps for example.
Does the 10000 step target tally with any evidence based physical activity goals?
To simplify things though lets focus on healthy adults and what we understand about health promoting physical activity.
One of the ACSM guidelines for cardio respiratory exercise recommends 30-60minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (which could include brisk walking) on 5 days a week. It has been estimated that a moderately active person takes between 5000-7500 steps on a typical day not including formal exercise. If we take 100 steps a minute as a reasonable estimate of moderate intensity walking, then multiplying this by 30 minutes gets us 3000 steps. Done on a daily basis this fits nicely into the bottom end of the ACSM guidelines (30 minutes), as well as the 10000 step target.
The problem here is we're not following evidence to a conclusion, we're starting off with the pre-supposition that 10000 steps are beneficial and trying to fit the evidence around it. This isn't good science. We should allow the evidence to lead us to a conclusion not the other way around.
So as you can see there are lots of problems with the 10000 a day target.
That's not to say it isn't beneficial. Doing some physical activity is better than none and there's evidence that having a daily steps goal encourages more physical activity. The problem is again none of the research is specific to 10000 steps.
The bottom line?
So what do we conclude from all this?
Are 10000 steps a day enough to keep you fit and healthy? Is it an appropriate target?
The answer I'm afraid is:
....... it all depends? Not a satisfying answer but that's the conclusion that the evidence leads to.
Fitness Skeptic Score
Taking all of this into account, I give 10000 steps a day an FSS of:
There's going to have to be more study before we can draw any firm conclusions.
However, if you use a fitness tracker and use 10000 steps a day as a target, don't stop. Just modify the target if necessary. Most modern fitness trackers let you do this. If 10000 is a challenge then keep it up. If you find it an easy target to reach, increase it a little and remember at least half an hour of those steps should make you out of breath.
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