Here is a brief and interesting history lesson. In 1965, a man named Y. Hatano created and marketed a pedometer called the “manpo-kei.” This name roughly translates into “10,000 step meter,” and thanks to the wildly popular 1964 Olympics, the device sold very well. Since that time, the standard of 10,000 steps per day has been used in the marketing of most pedometers and fitness trackers.
While 10,000 steps were conceived more as a marketing technique than a scientific measure, many studies have been performed since that time validating that those who take 10,000 steps per day enjoy greater longevity and lower risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure than those who do not. It should be noted, however, that this principle applies to those who are physically active versus those who are not in general. Taking 10,000 steps is not the important goal per se, but rather maintaining an active lifestyle.
Should You Set a 10,000 Steps Per Day Goal?
There is no one-size-fits-all step prescription that will result in weight loss, reduced health risks, and greater fitness gains for all people. According to some studies, the average American adult takes about 5,000 steps per day. For the average sedentary person, increasing steps to 10,000 per day can be a good starting point for becoming more active.
Conversely, for someone who exercises at a moderate to high intensity a few times per week, 10,000 steps may not pose much of a challenge at all. For this individual to increase fitness and lose weight, more intense measures will need to be taken, such as increasing weight during strength training, adding more high intensity intervals to a workout, or setting a much higher step goal. It should be noted that even for those in the sedentary group, fitness levels should gradually increase over time for the best weight loss and health benefits.
More is Better
A new study published this month in The International Journal of Obesity followed 111 postal workers between the ages of 40 and 60, none of which had a history of heart disease. The volunteers wore fitness trackers for a week. Due to the varied nature of different postal jobs, some workers sat for up to 15 hours per day while others sat barely at all in the course of a workday. The researchers measured BMI, waistline circumference, blood sugar, and cholesterol for all of the participants. Those who met or exceeded 15,000 steps per day were most likely to have normal BMIs, waistlines, and metabolic health, thus translating into the lowest risks for heart disease.
One should also take into account what kind of steps that are being taken. For exercise to have cardiovascular benefits, the exercise needs to be intense enough to raise the heart rate and pose a challenge to the body. 10,000 steps at an easy, unhurried pace will not yield the same results as 10,000 brisk steps.
Instead of using a 10,000 step goal, adults should follow the CDC physical activity recommendations of at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, in addition to two or more strength training sessions per week that work all of the major muscle groups, or 1 hour and 15 minutes of high intensity aerobic activity in addition to two or more strength training sessions per week that work all of the major muscle groups.
Find more fitness recommendations from the CDC here.
Active Vs. Sedentary
One mistake that many Americans make is assuming that hitting a daily step goal can or should be the only fitness intervention they make. Reaching a certain number of steps should not be the greater goal; rather, reducing the amount of time spent sitting and being inactive is a better way to view fitness. Long stretches of sitting are associated with increased risks of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature death.
A common complaint I hear at the clinic is, “I have been exercising regularly, and I am actually gaining weight. Why is this?” I address this problem thoroughly in an article here, but one of the main reasons is something called “compensatory inactivity.” Some people become less active overall when they begin a new exercise regimen. Though they are following the CDC’s fitness recommendations or meeting a 10,000 per day step goal, they begin using their free time in more sedentary ways. The time they once spent on shopping, playing with their children, and meeting with friends is now spent sitting on the couch, believing that the workout compensates for more sedentary time. This sort of behavior is counterproductive, resulting in equal or higher health risks and weight gain.
The Bottom Line
If you are new to exercise, try wearing a pedometer for a week and tracking your results. If you fall at or below 5,000 steps per day, gradually increase the number of steps you take until you reach 10,000. Make sure at least 2.5 hours of those steps are taken at a brisk pace, and incorporate a couple of strength training sessions into your week as well. Once you reach this goal, try decreasing the amount of time you spend in sedentary activities. Instead of going out to eat with friends, try taking a walk together. Instead of play board games with your family, try a friendly game of soccer. Pace or use a stationary bike while you watch TV. Building these healthy habits will dramatically decrease your risks of heart disease.
Want to increase your weight loss potential? Pair that fitness routine with high protein smoothies. They build up your lean muscle mass to accelerate the metabolism and digest slowly, over the course of several hours, to keep you feeling full longer between meals.