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Walking 10,000 Steps a Day: Goal or Myth?

Some myths never die, they only fade away. But the idea of taking 10,000 steps a day is one that persists. What started as a catchy marketing slogan has become a mantra for anyone promoting physical activity. But the 10,000-step target is arbitrary and ignores a fundamental truth of lifestyle medicine: When it comes to physical activity, anything is better than nothing.

It all began in 1965 when the Japanese company Yamasa Tokei began selling a new step-counter which they called manpo-kei – or, ‘ten-thousand steps meter’. They coupled the product launch with an ad campaign – “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day!” – in a bid to encourage physical activity. The threshold was always somewhat arbitrary, but the idea of 10,000 steps cemented itself in the public consciousness from that point forward.

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with taking 10,000 steps a day and it does roughly correlate with the generally recommended amount of physical activity. Most people will take somewhere between 5,000 and 7,500 steps a day, even if they lead largely sedentary lives. If you add 30 minutes of walking to your daily routine, that will account for an extra 3,000-4,000 steps and bring you closer to that 10,000-step threshold. As such, setting a 10,000-step target is a potentially useful shorthand for people aspiring to achieve better levels of physical activity.

But walking fewer steps still has a benefit. A study in JAMA Network Open followed a cohort of 2,110 adults from the CARDIA study and found rather unsurprisingly that those with more steps per day had lower rates of all-cause mortality. But interestingly, those who averaged 7,000-10,000 steps per day did just as well as those who walked more than 10,000 steps, suggesting that the lower threshold was probably the inflection point.

Other research has shown that improving your step count is probably more important than achieving any specific threshold. In one Canadian study, patients with diabetes were randomised to standard care, or to an exercise prescription from their physicians. The intervention group improved their daily step count from around 5,000 steps per day to about 6,200 steps per day. While the increase was less than the researchers had hoped for, it still resulted in improvements in blood sugar control. In another study, a 24-week walking program reduced blood pressure by 11 points in postmenopausal women, even though their increased daily step counts fell short of the 10,000-step goal at about 9,000.

Similarly, a small Japanese study found that enrolling postmenopausal women in a weekly exercise program helped improve their lipid profile even though they only increased their daily step count from 6,800 to 8,500 steps per day. And an analysis of US NHANES data showed a mortality benefit when individuals taking more than 8,000 steps were compared with those taking fewer than 4,000 steps per day. The benefits largely plateaued beyond 9,000-10,000 steps.

The reality is that walking 10,000 steps a day is a laudable goal and is almost certainly beneficial. But even lower levels of physical activity have benefits. The trick is not so much to aim for some theoretical ideal but to improve upon your current baseline. Encouraging patients to get into the habit of taking a daily walk (be it in the morning, during lunchtime, or in the evening) is going to pay dividends regardless of their daily step count. The point is that when it comes to physical activity, the greatest benefit seems to be when we go from doing nothing to doing something.

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