Do you really need to log 10,000 steps a day?
If you’re wondering how the popular 10,000-steps-a-day goal measures up, its origins come from a Japanese marketing campaign used to sell pedometers and not from rigorous research. Yet despite its lack of scientific pedigree, it’s often touted as the gold standard when it comes to daily step counts. So ingrained is it in popular culture, researchers have been exploring how 10,000 steps a day measures up against more scientifically based physical activity guidelines. Exercise recommendations issued by national and international health organizations, like 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, are usually defined by frequency, intensity and time. Ideally, a daily step count goal would do the same. The majority of fitness trackers do a pretty good job at quantifying frequency and time, but when it comes to intensity, most don’t differentiate between steps taken at a brisk pace and those taken at a stroll. This is a key bit of information as steps taken during a typical day alternate between light, moderate and vigorous intensity, which means they don’t all qualify as physical activity. So while your activity tracker may give you credit for the number of steps it takes to walk the dog, unless you’re moving at a brisk pace from start to finish, it doesn’t count toward the recommended weekly goal of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. So where does that leave us in coming up with the ideal daily step count? Studies tracking people’s step counts over several weeks show that most log anywhere from 4,000–6,000 steps a day doing the regular chores of everyday life — a number most exercise experts consider reflective of a sedentary lifestyle. So it’s clear that any daily step goal designed to improve health would need to exceed 6,000 steps. Several studies have demonstrated that boosting incidental step count by increments of 2,000 offers positive results. Cardiovascular events started to decrease among study subjects who added 2,000 steps to their daily count. A similar pattern was observed for metabolic syndrome with a 5.5-per-cent lower risk of progression toward Type 2 diabetes for every increase of 2,000 steps (up to 10,000 steps). That 2,000 steps number makes sense, especially when we consider that 100 steps a minute is the pace necessary to reach the “moderate intensity” needed to benefit health. Using simple math, it will take a just over 2,000 brisk steps a day to accumulate the weekly 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise — which has already been confirmed as the minimum physical activity requirement needed to positively impact health. Does that mean 8,000 steps a day is the magic number to benefit from better health and a reduced risk for chronic disease? A team of health and fitness researchers from the American College of Sports Medicine says it’s still too soon to tell. They acknowledge that step counts fewer than 10,000 per day have the potential to contribute toward a reduction in disease risk, but suggest that 3,000–6,000 steps over and above the 4,000-6,000 most people incur naturally throughout the day, might be closer to the right number. That said, they claim there’s not enough good data to make specific recommendations about how many steps we should be taking a day. Where does all of this leave those of us who use fitness trackers, like the Apple Watch, Fitbit and Garmin? First, set your daily goal a minimum of 2,000 steps greater than the number of steps you accumulate during a normal day with no purposeful physical activity. And make sure those 2,000 steps are done at a brisk (moderate) pace; about 100 steps per minute. And if you can’t get in all your steps at one time, try accumulating them in a minimum of 10-minute bouts. But don’t stop there. It’s clear from all the research that the more steps you can accumulate, the healthier you’ll be. So if you can boost your daily step count by another 2,000 steps, it’s likely that your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and all-cause mortality will be even further reduced. There is one caveat. Not only is the minimum number of steps necessary to improve health unknown, so too is the threshold after which more steps doesn’t mean more health returns. Like any form of healthy lifestyle intervention, more doesn’t always mean better. So find a daily goal somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 steps a day and get moving.