Do You Really Need to Do 10,000 Steps a Day?

10K is officially out. According to recent data, health benefits begin from as little as 7,000 steps per day. Here’s your new daily plan.

10,000 steps

Putting one foot in front of the other 10,000 times a day can be exhausting. But needs must in the quest to stay healthy, right? Wrong. In fact, recent data suggests getting as little as 7,000 steps a day can lower your risk of death by up to 50%. Here’s how.

Why is your step count important?

Walking is the most basic form of exercise we can do, which doesn’t mean it’s without its benefits. “Any movement is good, it doesn’t always have to be high-impact sprint sessions or deadlift PBs to have a cumulative impact on health,” says physiotherapist Kieran Sheridan. “Increased movement of any kind will help burn calories and dodge diseases such as cardiovascular illnesses, diabetes, and several cancers.”

Perhaps the best benefit of walking is its accessibility. Walking doesn’t cost money – you don’t need to invest in expensive kit. If you’re injured or on a recovery day, a long walk is a low-impact way to keep moving. It’s particularly beneficial for older adults, according to a 2019 telephone survey of American adults who suffered from arthritis.

The results, published in the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that of the 87,299 participants who suffered from arthritis but also engaged in physical activity, 70.8% reported walking as their main form of exercise (followed by gardening, and then weightlifting). “Walking is one of the easiest forms of exercise, tailored for people of all fitness levels because you can customise the pace and intensity. And it’s easier on the spine than jogging,” explains Sheridan.

Aside from physical benefits, walking also offers psychological benefits. According to a systematic review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021, long-distance walks (defined loosely as a walk of around 30km or more – certainly more than 10,000 steps) “might be a low-cost intervention to promote mental health.”

Don’t worry, you don’t have to set out on a record-breaking yomp if you don’t want to: according to a study review by the American Psychological Association, adults who walked for 75 minutes per week lowered their risk of depression by 18%, with that number jumping to 25% for adults who walk for 2.5 hours or more per week.

Why was 10,000 steps considered the gold standard?

With the research mentioned above suggesting the more steps the merrier, it makes sense that we’d aim for 10,000 as a nice, round figure, right? Well yes and no. Rather than being a bona fide health metric, the 10k steps goal is actually the result not of scientific study but of a marketing campaign…

“The 10,000 steps per day goal stems from a Japanese step counting device from the 1960s, the ‘Manpo-kei’, which roughly translated to ’10,000 steps meter’,” explains Amanda Paluch, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Kinesiology and Institute for Applied Life Sciences. “This quickly became the mainstream goal, but it isn’t actually supported with scientific evidence.”

A 2019 study published in the journal Obesity, did find that participants who performed 10,000 steps a day – 3,500 of which were performed in moderate to vigorous 10 minute bursts – over 18 months experienced “enhanced weight loss” of less than or equal to 10% BMI. However, these participants were also on a calorie restricted diet – all of which makes it difficult to directly equate 10,000 steps a day as directly beneficial for weight loss.

So, while we know that walking is good for us, there isn’t any evidence that we need to aim specifically for 10,000 steps per day. In fact, new data suggests we don’t need to aim that high at all…

What does the new data say?

Seeking to question the 10,000 steps a day rhetoric, Paluch and her colleagues studied the link between steps per day and mortality in 2110 men and women aged 38 to 50 years old. Participants wore a step counting device for a mean of 10.8 months. The participants were then checked in with a mean of 10.8 years later, at which time just 3.4% had died. Paluch and her co-authors concluded that when it came to all-cause mortality, while movement is good, the benefits began much earlier than 10,000 steps.

“Participants taking at least 7,000 steps a day, compared with those taking fewer than 7000 steps a day, had a 50% to 70% lower risk of mortality,” they write in a paper shared on JAMA Network Open. Not only that, but it didn’t matter how energetic those steps were, either. “There was no association of step intensity with mortality regardless of adjustment for step volume,” the study explains.

“Our research shows that health benefits can occur at levels well below 10,000 steps per day,” Paluch explains via email. In fact, in a follow up meta-analysis of 15 studies (published in the Lancet), Paluch found that there wasn’t that much more benefit between 7,000 and 10,000 steps per day.

“In our follow-up study we showed that the lower risk of death levelled off around 8,000-10,000 steps per day for young to middle aged adults and that there was not much additional benefit beyond this level,” she explains. “This doesn’t mean taking more than 10,000 steps per day may be harmful, rather that there appears to be diminishing returns above 10,000,” Paluch says.

What does this mean for you day to day?

Paluch’s research doesn’t mean it’s time to kick back and relax; it’s still important to keep moving. “If you are at 10,000 steps, certainly keep it up,” she advises. “It isn’t an all or nothing situation. Our results showed that more steps are better, particularly for those who are not very active right now. Those who are least active have the most to gain. Increasing incrementally could be meaningful for your health. So if you are at 4,000, work toward 5,000, and so on,” she advises.

Even trying to add in an additional 1,000 steps per day is a worthy goal. “Steps per day is an excellent metric to promote moving more and sitting less throughout the day,” says Paluch. “Having some sort of metric goal is great for motivation, and with the growing popularity of fitness trackers it can be a simple and feasible way to start moving more.”

How might you add more steps to your day? Paluch suggests taking the longer route to get to the bus stop, opting for the stairs at work, turning office meetings into walking meetings, or taking a few laps around the field while you’re waiting for your child to finish football practice, instead of waiting in your car.

“Start as soon as you wake up,” advises Sheridan. “Put on a podcast and pace the kitchen while waiting for your morning coffee to brew. You could add an extra 200 steps before you’ve left the house. Taking frequent tea breaks in the office won’t just help your desk-bound back, it’ll add vital steps in, as will logging off at lunch and getting out for fresh air. Instead of ordering dinner in, walk to the restaurant and pick your food up if you aren’t cooking.”

Remember: having a daily step-goal is a great way to get moving, but aiming for 10,000 steps is not only daunting, but unnecessary. Recent data suggests that benefits begin at 7,000 steps per day and tend to level off shortly afterwards, meaning your daily goal just got much more manageable. And if you’re still struggling to get moving, may we suggest investing in a greyhound?

Words: Tom Ward

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