I have several friends who are constantly tracking their steps. Their goal is 10,000 steps a day, supposedly an important milestone for staying fit. Fine, but why is 10,000 the magic number?
Good question, one that is answered in the May 2023 issue of Scientific American magazine. In an article entitled “The ‘10,000 Steps’ Gimmick,” author Lydia Denworth explains how new research supports different daily step goals depending on a person’s age and fitness level (https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?).
She begins by relating how the entire idea of an ideal number of steps began as a Japanese marketing gimmick — in the 1960s, a Japanese company invented an early pedometer. Since the Japanese character for 10,000 looks like someone walking, the devise was named the “10,000-step meter.” Catchy title, but without any fitness basis behind it.
For comparison, another guideline, published in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is time. Many experts recommend a broader range of exercise, like 150 to 300 minutes of weekly moderate activity (brisk walking) or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity (jogging). The good news is, according to epidemiological studies, a decade of consistently hitting a time goal should add about an extra year and a half of life! Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to make a similar determination about steps.
But studies about steps are beginning to produce more meaningful data. Some movement is good, more is better, it’s just that the benefits taper at some point depending on age. People younger than 60 should indeed walk 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day to do best in terms of life expectancy and cardiovascular health. People older than 60 show the most benefit between 6,000 and 8,000 steps. And the total number of steps appears to matter more than the speed at which you take them.
More-recent studies are moving beyond life expectancy to ask questions about the way steps may contribute to a healthier life, like to help control blood pressure and weight. The real goal should be quality of life, not just quantity. So until more results are published, the best strategy is to tailor your steps according to your fitness goals and age.