Over the last several years, many people have embraced the notion that 10,000 daily steps are the way to being physically fit. Health experts espouse that notion and trainers endorse it, but is there scientific proof behind the recommendation?
The 10,000-step standard – which equates to roughly five miles, depending on a person’s stride length and speed – has some surprising origins that are not necessarily rooted in medical science. I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the lead author of a new study published in May 2019 in The Journal of the American Medical Association wanted to explore the origins of the 10,000-step recommendation. She discovered the guideline evolved from a marketing strategy devised by a Japanese company called Yamasa Toki. That firm introduced its new step-counter in 1965, naming it Manpo-Kei, which translated into ‘10,000 steps meter.’ They marketed the meter using the Japanese character for 10,000, which resembles a man walking. The character and round number proved memorable and the slogan, ‘Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day’ was catchy. As a result, many people adopted the 10,000-step approach, even though its medical benefits might not have been proven.
But this isn’t to suggest that taking 10,000 steps per day cannot be part of a healthy living plan. In fact, such a goal promotes physical activity, which is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. However, simply taking 10,000 steps per day might not be enough to achieve long-term health.
Lee conducted her own research to test if the Japanese were on to something by inadvertently setting the 10,000-step standard. She found that an increase in walking correlated to lower mortality rates among more than 16,000 elderly American women. However, when these women reached about 7,500 steps the mortality rates leveled out, suggesting that those extra 2,500 steps might not be necessary.
Even the manufacturer of one of the most popular fitness trackers, Fitbit, says that users’ step goals can vary depending on need, and that goals may even shift over time. People who are looking to lose weight and maintain their existing health will need to modify their step count accordingly. Working with a qualified trainer or using a medically sanctioned training program can help people exercise safely and effectively.