Surveys show that very few Americans know how much exercise they’re supposed to get. But many people are familiar with the idea of walking 10,000 steps per day (or roughly five miles). And it’s not unusual to see members of the 10K-a-day club constantly checking their fitness trackers (even jogging laps around their dining room table) in hopes of achieving the magic number.
Certainly anything that gets people to move more is a good thing. But it turns out that the 10,000-steps-per-day guideline is overly simplistic and based more on marketing than science. To understand how we got there, here's a little history lesson.
The concept originated in the 1960s with a Japanese manufacturer of a pedometer called manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000 steps meter.” It’s thought that the number 10,000 was chosen because of its exalted status in Japanese culture, not necessarily because it's a golden number for health.
So what does science say? Research shows that getting fewer than 5,000 steps per day equates to being sedentary (no bueno). Adding 3,000 to this baseline, for a total of 8,000 steps, is enough to meet the standard exercise recommendations for healthy adults and be considered "somewhat active." But there are two key requirements here: 1) The 3,000 additional steps need to be taken at a relatively brisk pace of at least 100 per minute, which is a fast walk or jog, and 2) they need to be done in increments of at least 10 minutes.
If you don't meet both of these conditions, you could be falling short of the amount of exercise you need for general health, even if you get 10,000 steps. For example, in a study of people who had osteoarthritis of the knee or were at high risk for it, more than 75 percent of those who walked at least 10,000 steps per day failed to meet the general exercise guidelines for Americans.
On the other hand, if you walk briskly, jog, or run—anything that gets your heart rate up for 10 minutes or more—fewer than 10,000 steps a day may suffice. You'll even score extra credit if you use the stairs. Whether you’re going up or down, stairs require you to engage more muscle groups and thus will help you burn more calories per minute compared to walking on flat ground. Stair steps and running steps are more "valuable" for your overall health than walking steps, which is why you can fall short of 10,000 and still get a healthy dose of exercise.
Which brings us to the marketing side of this: Can we even be sure these devices are accurate? It's not exactly clear. In a study of four popular devices, two worn on the wrist and two on the hip, the trackers were generally accurate at counting steps but severely overestimated calories burned during walking and jogging. Another more recent study suggests that waist pedometers are more accurate than wrist pedometers but that cost and accuracy have an inverse relationship. The Accuracy of Pedometers in Measuring Walking Steps on a Treadmill in College Students. Husted HM, Llewellyn TL. International journal of exercise science, 2017, Jan.;10(1):1939-795X. Translation: The more expensive the tracker, the less accurate it is. Another study showed the pedometers tested generated significant errors at slow speeds and therefore cannot be used reliably. Influence of Pedometer Position on Pedometer Accuracy at Various Walking Speeds: A Comparative Study. Ehrler F, Weber C, Lovis C. Journal of medical Internet research, 2016, Oct.;18(10):1438-8871. Which is all to say you can't always trust the tracker and that more advancements and research are needed.
The Bottom Line
The 10,000-steps-per-day recommendation is a general guideline for healthy individuals. But if your goal is to lose weight, increase performance, or challenge your cardiovascular system, there's more to it than just steps.
While many people find that tracking steps with these devices motivates them to be active, you don't need to track your steps to be healthy or stay fit. If you love to geek out over the numbers, by all means, use your favorite fitness tracker and keep moving! Just know that it's best used as a general gauge (e.g., is your step count consistent most days?) and that all the numbers might not be 100 percent accurate all of the time.
If you’re not into counting steps, that's totally cool too. Just try to move as much as you can and get your heart rate up for a total of at least 30 minutes on most days.
Adapted from Fitter Faster: The Smart Way to Get in Shape in Just Minutes a Day, by Robert J. Davis with Brad Kolowich, Jr. For more on Fitter Faster, visit fitterfasterplan.com.