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Should you really take 10,000 steps a day?

A woman sets Fitbit stepsSTaking 10,000 steps a day is the cornerstone of countless exercise plans. That glittering benchmark has been around for decades but regained popularity in the United States several years ago, right around the time Fitbit and similar tech began offering automatic smart pedometers.

Taken together, 10,000 steps equal roughly 5 miles and burn anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 calories per week, according to information from Fitbit. (The “normal” average for steps in a day is around 5,000.) However, some information has emerged suggesting that the number is more cosmetic than practical, potentially little more than a marketing scheme.

Is it salesmanship or sound science? Are 10,000 steps per day really needed to make an impact on your health and waistline? Let us now take a look at both sides of the coin to help you make the best decision for you.

A woman sets Fitbit stepsSThree women walk across a bridge

Benefits of steps

Although there are numerous ways to get your steps in, many people naturally rely on walking to comprise the bulk of their daily tally.

This is a good thing. Walking is an underrated form of exercise, with benefits including:

  • Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Lower body fat.
  • Boosted immune system.
  • Protection against dementia.
  • Lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Better control of diabetes and blood sugar.
  • Stronger bones.
  • Greater strength and endurance.

Even better news: Leading physical activity guidelines generally recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise. However, a detailed scientific analysis found that health benefits appear in people doing half this volume. Although higher-intensity exercise will yield greater results, this finding confirms walking as an effective bedrock of your routine, especially if you’re just starting out.

At the same time, one of the strong points of the 10,000-step rule is its ability to essentially compel its adherents to exercise. Although walking can make up the bulk of their steps, with the average American taking just a few thousand steps each day as part of their normal daily activities, additional steps are typically needed to break that mythical five-figure threshold.

So … are 10,000 steps really necessary?

In a word, no.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that mortality rates went down among women who walked up to 4,400 steps per day when compared with people who took only 2,700 steps per day. However, health benefits leveled out at the 7,500-step mark — suggesting 10,000 steps a day are not critical in order to improve health and fitness.

As authors of the study wrote:

A common goal of 10,000 steps per day has been perpetuated by the lay press and is often used as the default by software programs on wearables and smartphones. However, the origin of the goal of 10,000 steps per day is unclear … There is limited information on how many daily steps are needed for health.

The same study concluded that the 10,000-step benchmark might indeed be a marketing tool — devised well before the Fitbit era. It actually seems to have been started in 1965 by a Japanese clock company hoping to promote its new pedometer. And with the onset of Fitbit, it seems that marketing instinct re-emerged in the public consciousness.

It should also be noted that 10,000 steps are simply not a viable goal for many people looking to increase their physical activity. Those who live in unsafe surroundings or have trouble getting around on their own may be unwittingly frozen out of the process. Insisting on 10,000 steps as a be-all, end-all may discourage exercise among population groups that need it most.

Fortunately, there are plenty of exercise options for just about any health status. As multiple scientific studies have indicated, it’s perfectly OK if 10,000 steps are more of an aspirational goal in some cases, as opposed to a hard-and-fast rule. But if you are ready and able to take 10,000 steps, there is no harm in doing so — whatever works best for you is the best option.

Bottom line: No matter how many steps you take, the real key is finding a routine you can stick to. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting 10,000 steps, but those who can’t make it shouldn’t feel discouraged, as long as they’re doing something. It’s a nice, round number, but it’s not firmly rooted in science.

As always, talk to your health care professional and do plenty of research before embarking on any new fitness plan. The 10,000-steps plan is attractive because it’s simultaneously demanding and relatively stress-free. For those reasons, 10,000 steps is a worthy goal. But by aiming for fewer steps (or another form of exercise altogether), you can still reach your health and fitness goals.

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