How many steps do you walk each day?
Almost everyone I know tracks their steps with a smartwatch or fitness tracker. Heck, even a watch I bought for my 11-year-old has the ability to measure his steps, set goals, and reward him for hitting them. When I work with a new client who wants to lose weight, tracking steps is one of the first tools I use to measure how sedentary or active they are, and then we work to improve upon their current habits.
The default step goal for these tracking devices (regardless of age) is 10,000. We’ve heard about 10,000 steps for so long we all believe the basis for this information is rooted in scientific proof. It’s not. Did you know it began as a marketing strategy to sell a Japanese pedometer?
Shortly before the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games, a company started selling a pedometer called the Manpo-kei: “man” meaning 10,000, “po” meaning steps, and “kei” meaning meter. Some believe the company chose the name because the Japanese character for 10,000 sort of looks like a man walking.
The product ended up a huge success, and somehow the 10,000 number became the global standard for how much you should walk in a day. It’s so ingrained in my head that it’s still my daily goal, even though I know the number is arbitrary. Why?
Why Did 10,000 Stick?
Marketing campaigns that stand the test of time, even when there’s not much evidence to back them up, work because they’re believable and applicable to the target audience (even when that audience is massive). Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign works even 30 years later because it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, Black or white, fit or overweight, the message to stop making excuses and just get out there resonates with everyone.
The same thing applies to walking as a general measure of fitness. In 1964, the idea that regular exercise could fight against diseases like hypertension, diabetes, and strokes was just becoming widespread in mainstream media. Japanese walking clubs started enthusiastically promoting Manpo-kei as the minimum number of steps members were expected to walk.
The idea then spread from the Japanese health conscience to the rest of the world, as walking became a highly-accessible way to fight obesity. Walking is the simplest form of exercise — anyone can lace up their shoes and head outside. You don’t need equipment or coaching.
Putting a minimum number to how far you should walk gave people a reasonable goal. To reach 10,000 steps, you have to walk around five miles or eight kilometers. If you work a sedentary job or find yourself spending a lot of time seated, walking five miles means you have to dedicate a part of your day to exercise. Something major health organizations all advocate.
However, no one thought to question if 10,000 was the “right” number, or more specifically, the right number for what goal (weight loss, longevity, mood regulation, etc.)? The 10,000-minimum step rule is so pervasive, and widespread, people believe it simply because if you hear something that many times, it must be true, right?
What Does the Research Say?
Scientists have since tried to “catch up” with the 10,000 steps theory and have conducted several studies looking at whether or not 10,000 appears to be a magic number for longevity (living longer) or health.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association asked two fundamental questions:
- How many steps a day were associated with longer life?
- Did step intensity matter?
Lead author, I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and her colleagues looked at 16,741 women (average age 72) who participated in the Women’s Health Study between 2011 and 2015. Each woman wore a device for seven days to track her movement.
They found walking approximately 4,400 steps per day was associated with a 41% reduction in mortality rate than the lowest quartile (around 2,700 steps per day). They did not find a correlation with step intensity.
“If they did more, their mortality rates continued to drop until they reached about 7,500 steps, at which point the rates leveled out. Ultimately, increasing daily physical activity by as little as 2,000 steps — less than a mile of walking — was associated with positive health outcomes for the elderly women.”
The authors admit the study’s observational nature means they can’t conclude cause and effect — only that there’s an association between steps and reduced mortality.
What about weight loss? I couldn’t find any studies looking particularly at step count and weight loss. Still, one clinical 12-week weight loss intervention study found 30 minutes of walking on most days of the week may be as beneficial as 60 minutes (combined with diet) in promoting numerous additional healthful outcomes over diet alone following a weight loss program.
Obviously, walking itself burns calories, but just how many will vary from person to person. How fast are you walking? How heavy are you? How long are your legs (long legs travel more distance with fewer steps)? Do you perform other types of exercise?
How active were you before you started a weight loss program? If your body is used to walking 2,000 steps a day and you increase to 7,500, you may see a substantial benefit. Others may have to increase to well over 10,000 for a similar impact.
Clearly, anywhere from 7,500 on up will do the body good. There’s nothing magic about 10,000.
While aiming for 10,000 steps a day may work for you, it could seem far more impossible for others. Failing to hit the goal could end up demotivating a person. Everyone can benefit from small, incremental improvements in step goals, and it may be easier to work on increasing by a smaller percentage each week.
Aiming for a number on a watch can also take the joy out of walking for fun. If you’re only doing it to achieve a goal, you may end up resenting the effort. I’ve known clients who couldn’t sleep if they ended the day at 9,950. They would make themselves pace the bedroom or walk up and down the hall. In reality, 50 steps will make zero difference in the long run.
Lastly, you could find yourself hitting 10,000 steps early in the day and then making no further effort to move after that. Research links prolonged sitting to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol, and excess body fat around the waist (a condition known as metabolic syndrome). One study showed people with obesity sit for two more hours on average than people without. It’s important to get up and move around even if you’ve already hit your step goal.
While I can’t be certain this is true, I imagine the company behind Manpo-kei was immensely pleased with themselves. For good reason. The emphasis on walking as a key component of health has done immense good for the world. They took a clever name and made it into a global standard.
Humans like rules. Do X to achieve Y. For example, Just Do It (Nike makes you a better athlete), Get a Mac (Apple will make you more efficient), The Most Interesting Man in the World (drinking Dos Equis makes you sophisticated), etc.
The best marketing campaigns are so woven into our psyche we no longer think to question them — just like the 10,000-step goal. This is why so many of us still try to hit an arbitrary number each day. Try as I might, I can’t stop myself from feeling better when I get there. It may have been luck or a strike of creative genius when they picked Manpo-kei for the name. Either way, I have a feeling 10,000 steps is not going anywhere anytime soon.