We hear it all the time…get your 10,000 steps in!! Have you hit 10,000 yet?...but is that the number of steps we actually need? Who even came up with that magic number? Does the quantity of steps matter as much as intensity? Are physical activity guidelines the same for everyone?
Grab a seat (no pun intended) and gather round. We’ve got your answers.
Origin of the 10,000 daily step goal
So, it turns out this magic number was all part of a marketing campaign for a Japanese-made pedometer called the Manpo-kei. Ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Yamasa Corporation released an ad with the Japanese character for 10,000, which happens to look like a person walking.
That may be where the number supposedly originated, but it’s also been reinforced as an ideal step goal here in the U.S. by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a memo on lifestyle and physical activity interventions for diabetes prevention, it states: “Consider using a pedometer to measure how active you are throughout the day. The average American walks 1.5 – 2 miles per day. Set a goal of 10,000 steps a day.”
For reference, 10,000 steps is the equivalent of five miles, with fewer than 5,000 steps per day falling into the category of “sedentary.”
Do we all really need 10,000 steps?
According to a March 2023 study evaluating daily step patterns and mortality in U.S. adults, researchers found that people 20 years of age or older who walked at least 8,000 steps one or two days a week were 14.9% less likely to die over a decade of follow-up compared to those who were sedentary. What’s more, mortality risk decreased as the number of walking days increased.
Does intensity up the benefits of walking?
It depends on what your health and fitness goals are.
If you’re focused on overall health and longevity, some research shows that you can worry less about intensity. Simply put, the more steps the better. In fact, a just-released study on the association between daily step count and mortality found that, for every increase of 1,000 steps per day, there was a 15% decrease in all-cause mortality, and for an increase of 500 steps per day, there was a 7% decrease in cardiovascular mortality (i.e. heart disease)…not too shabby, right?
But here’s the thing: there are studies that contradict this. Researchers from the University of Leicester in the UK found that a faster, brisk walking pace (independent of the amount of physical activity) was associated with longer telomeres, which help protect our chromosomes from damage, slowing biological aging.
The bottom line: the jury’s still out on whether intensity plays a role in the health benefits of walking when it comes to aging and overall health…but don’t let that deter you. With exercise, a good goal is one that you’re able to stick to. Getting in ANY steps (regardless of intensity) is better than no steps at all. As Elektra Guide Laura, RN likes to say…Move as much as you can, as often as you can, throughout the day. Remember, we’ve all got to start somewhere.
If you’re focused on weight loss, you may want to increase the pace. According to a 2018 analysis of 363 study participants with obesity, those who walked 10,000 steps per day — 3,500 of which fell into the category of “moderate-to-vigorous intensity” lasting at least 10 minutes — lost more weight and were able to maintain that weight loss through to their 18-month study follow-up.
Here’s how to know if you’re at moderate or vigorous intensity:
- Moderate: when you’re breaking a sweat with an increased heart rate but can still hold a conversation
- Vigorous: when you’re breathing hard and can only say a few words at a time without pausing
5 ways to up your daily step count
Think of your daily walk like less of a routine and more like a ritual
“Routine” can have such a negative connotation…like something that you HAVE to do but really don’t want to because it feels, well, routine and boring. When you reframe your daily walk as a “ritual” that you GET to do, it takes on new meaning and hopefully becomes something cherished that you look forward to. Listening to an audiobook or podcast helps.
Team up with a friend
Friends aren’t only good company, they’re also powerful accountability partners.
Treat yourself to a snazzy activity tracker
Get this: research shows that those who track their daily step count with a fitness tracker (Fitbit, Apple Watch, Whoop, etc) walk an average of 2,000 more steps a day than those who don’t. Bonus points for the fact that you can engage in friendly competition with friends and family to see who gets in the most steps.
Think beyond just walking
You can also get in steps by doing other forms of aerobic exercise that you may enjoy more like dancing, volleyball, pickleball, or tennis.
Spot the “easy wins” to sneak in more low-impact walking
No need to dish out the big bucks on a personal trainer to increase your cardio activity levels. There are easy wins you can accomplish throughout the day to get in those extra steps, including:
- Skipping the elevator or escalator in favor of stairs
- Picking a parking spot further away
- Getting off the subway or bus one stop early to walk for a bit
- Taking a walking call at work — or investing in a treadmill desk!
- Setting your time for every 30 minutes to take a quick walk around your space (if you’re stuck in an office or work from home)