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

Do you 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 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.

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.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from additional steps, but for reducing heart disease and comorbidities, between 5,000 and 8,000 is ideal,” said Brandon Weaver, physician assistant with Center for Orthopedic Care with Oswego Health who also coaches varsity lacrosse in Fulton. 

“Ten thousand steps is a lot,” Weaver said. “It’s almost five miles. It’s hard to do routinely. Trying to live a healthy lifestyle is beneficial, but set goals you can get to or you won’t stick with it. A little goes a long way.”

Walking five miles can take up to an hour and 45 minutes — a struggle for the time-strapped. Working out with a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) routine can offer many benefits without so much time invested, since it involves bursts of energy spent punctuated with short rests.

Walking is not well-suited for everyone. 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.

Tiago Barreira, assistant professor of the exercise science department at SU, prefers to take a more generalized approach to increasing activity for fitness than rigidly adhering to a specified number of steps.

“The recommendation for physical activity is 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activities per week,” Barreira said. “The more recent information shows that it can be spread out through the day. It doesn’t have to be all at once.”

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 those dedicated to walking, it is important to realize that leisurely strolls have a different effect than brisk walking, with the arms pumping and swift striding.

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

“If I’m only walking, that is not going to make a big difference” for those goals, Barreira said.

He added that walking will help maintain good health in areas like controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, decreasing mortality risk and improving quality of life.

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.