The advice to take 10,000 steps per day is really common; where did that number originate?
That 10,000 steps per day number started way back in the 1960s in Japan as an intervention with a pedometer. I think 10,000 just sounded good as a nice round number and kind of stuck.
There’s been a lot of research that looks at walking and steps per day to better understand associations with things like weight loss or cardiovascular health. We published a paper several years ago focusing on people who were in a weight loss intervention, looking at both diet and exercise for 18 months. One of the groups we looked at were people who had lost 10% of their body weight by 18 months and maintained it, and found that on average they were doing around 10,000 steps per day. But this isn’t to say that 10,000 steps is the recommended number or the ideal number.
So, is there a recommended or ideal number of steps to take per day?
I think when we read these articles about the ideal number of steps, the clear message should be improving a little bit. Especially for anybody who’s starting out on a goal to increase their physical activity, the important thing to understand is what your baseline is. Where are you right now, where are you starting? Can you improve a little bit? The more physical activity you do, the more likely you’re going to see results, and that’s universal for physical activity: the more you do, the more health benefit you’re likely to see.
So, if you’re starting out at 2,000 steps per day, then a goal might be to slowly build up, to increase that number so you’re doing a little bit more each day. If it helps to set 10,000 steps as a goal, then that’s a pretty good target, but it’s not a magic number.
Does the type of steps matter? Fast vs. slow, or uphill vs. a level surface?
In our research, we have found that the type of step matters. In the previous study mentioned, when we looked at what we would think of as strolling around steps, and not purposeful walking, we found that all the groups accumulated the same number of strolling steps. Then, looking at moderate- to vigorous-intensity steps accumulated in short bouts – for example, a short walk down the hall but with more moderate intensity – we again saw similar numbers of those kind of steps across all groups. The big differentiator was moderate to vigorous walking in bouts of 10 minutes or longer. That made a significant difference in maintaining weight loss at 18 months. And of course weight loss isn’t always the goal, but those moderate- to vigorous-intensity walks of 10 minutes or more are also associated with improved cardiovascular health, and there’s research demonstrating mental health associations as well.
Is there a way to know the difference between strolling and moderate- or vigorous-intensity walking?
The first advice I give is, whatever your normal walking pace is, just speed up a little bit. A way to look at it is, if you’re going to the bus stop and you’re five minutes early, that’s your strolling pace. If you see the bus coming but you can make it if you speed up to even the point of a slow jog, that’s your vigorous walking pace.
Are fitness trackers or the accelerometers in smartphones helpful, or are they just making us all feel guilty for not walking enough?
I think they can be useful to help us be aware of where we’re at when we get started, what our baseline is, so we know what 2,000 or 3,000 steps feels like and help us be aware of what movement we did to accumulate those steps. When we know that, that can help us add 1,000 or 2,000 steps to our days, aligning with the idea of doing just a little bit more each day. Because not everyone has a fitness tracker or smartphone, I think the 10 minute message is a good one. If you can go walking at a moderate to vigorous pace for at least 10 minutes at a time, ideally several times a day, then you’re moving in a way that may help you see health benefits. Even if you only have time for shorter bouts of walking, or if that’s what you’re comfortable doing at first, if you’re starting from a baseline of no or low activity and are doing five-minute walking bouts, then that’s great. Then you can work toward the goal of doing a little bit more every day.
I think an important message is balance. A reason people like tracking their number of steps is because it helps them set attainable goals and feel like they’re making quantifiable progress. But it’s important to set realistic goals and find ways of moving that you enjoy, even if you’re pushing yourself to go just a bit farther or just a bit faster. When we’re setting movement goals, it’s important that we’re building habits we can maintain long-term and finding strategies to build movement into our daily routines. So, if it helps to set that goal of 7,000 or 10,000 steps, then that’s great, but I do think it’s really important to be realistic in our expectations and in what we can maintain long-term, and in building habits that make movement a part of our day.