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Why 10,000 Steps Per Day is the Magic Number

September 21, 2019

You are about to head out the door when you remember to do your usual pre-work pat down: wallet or purse, keys, and your pre-workout beverage of choice. In the last decade, one more thing has been added to the must-haves for the gym — a pedometer. The popularity of step trackers has exploded in response to better information about requirements for everyday health and fitness. It’s even become an automatic feature of almost every smartphone, where you can see in vivid colors how many steps you took that day, how many floors you may have “climbed”, and your activity level throughout the day. Technology has made it easy to quantify your physical activity and steps!  

Health experts recommend taking 10,000 steps per day, and our devices are now able to put this to the test. But is the 10,000 step rule correct? Where did this fitness rule come from, and what are the benefits of walking that much? Let’s explore the history of the 10,000 steps rule, the science of walking, and ways you can start and keep a walking schedule.

Where Did the 10,000 Steps Rule Come From?

According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that the 10,000 step rule started as a part of a marketing campaign for pedometers in Japan! But before you get too disappointed, keep reading. When researched, it turns out the marketers were on to something.

The lead researcher, I-Min Lee, believes that the decision to go with 10,000 steps — not 9,000 or 12,000 steps, for example — was made because the Japanese character for the number 10,000 looks like someone taking a step or walking. It should come as no surprise then that the company cleverly fit that Japanese character into the company’s logo and marketing.

What Does Science Say About the 10,000 Steps Rule?

So if the 10,000 steps rule was just a part of a marketing strategy and not based on confirmed studies, why did it catch on? 

According to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers found that the average number of steps that adults take each day varied widely. Primarily based on career choice and physical ability, adults were found to take between 4,000 and 18,000 steps each day. Those in the service industry (e.g., bartenders and waiters) were likely to be at the higher end, while a person working in a job that required the individual to be stationary (e.g., call center agent or receptionist) was more likely to be at the lower end.

The study found that given the wide range of numbers, 10,000 steps per day was actually a great target for optimal health benefits including weight loss and injury prevention when put to the test. However, these numbers weren’t quite the same for the elderly.

According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers focused on the mortality rate of elderly women and the impact that regular walking had on it. While walking more (or just being more active in general) is very important, researchers suggested that there isn’t much more benefit to walking 10,000 steps per day, than walking, say, 7,000.

The study concluded that 5,000 steps per day was a great place to start, especially if you are living a sedentary lifestyle, which includes sitting down for most of the day due to work and transportation, for example. With that said, 7,000 steps would be optimal, as it provides the greatest benefit for the elderly with the lowest risk of overuse injuries for this age group. For younger individuals however,10,000 is an even better goal.

Can You Get These Benefits Outside of Walking?

According to a post on Study.com, it will take the average person around two hours to walk the equivalent of 10,000 steps, which is about five miles. If you don’t have a guaranteed two hours per day to walk, is there another way to get the benefits of taking 10,000 steps?

The Center for Disease Control (CDC), recommends the following as the bare minimum amount of exercise per week:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, or
  • 75 minutes of high-intensity activity, or
  • A combination of both

For more health benefits, the CDC recommends increasing those numbers (again, per week) to:

  • 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, or
  • 150 minutes of high-intensity activity, or
  • A combination of both

If you’re strapped for time, the best way to get the most benefit from physical activity would be to do a higher-intensity exercise such as running, spinning, or full-body resistance training. Or, you can try to work in your steps throughout the day by doing things like running in place while you get ready for work, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. There is no one rule about how to get those steps in!

Best Ways to Start and Keep the Goal

Let’s say that you enjoy walking and want to begin a walking program with a goal of 10,000 steps, but you’re not sure where to begin. Here are several tips for starting your step goal with confidence.

Set a Schedule

According to a study published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, those people who take the time to set a measurable goal and well-developed action plan are more likely to succeed and maintain their results. Take a few minutes to write down your goal and the time you can dedicate to create a solid walking schedule.

Use it as a Chance to be Social

If you’re afraid that walking will cut into your social time, use this as a chance to get in shape and catch up with friends. Invite them along for the walk.

Carrot or the Stick

Did you know that there are apps that will reward you for exercising and reaching your goal? If you’re motivated by a cash reward, consider signing up for one of these apps. 

You can also go the other route, and sign up for a website that will hold a preset amount of money in an Escrow account. If you don’t reach your exercise goal, the money is donated to a charity of your choice. 

Get in the Habit of Tracking Your Steps

There are a variety of free cell phone apps that can accurately track the number of steps you take each day. Write down this number on a physical calendar each night so you can monitor your progress.

10,000 Steps A Day: A Good Goal for Most

There’s no need to be intimidated by a number like 10,000. You’d be surprised how quickly your steps add up. Start with a reasonable goal like 5,000 steps, and increase this number by 500 every other week. If you are over 65 then set the goal at 7,000 per day. And be sure to get outside and walk when the weather allows, fresh air is always best!

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