It’s the new year once again, which means two things: first regret, and then resolutions. And since the most common new year’s resolutions are losing weight and getting fit, this might be the time you finally dust off that pedometer you got all those years ago and decide fine, you’ll start getting 10,000 steps in every day. After all, that’s the recommended number, right?
Here’s the thing about turning over a new leaf: you shouldn’t attempt too big a leaf. Try to make too drastic a life change too fast, and you’re just setting yourself up for failure – which is why it may be a relief to know that actually, 10,000 steps is not the recommended number of steps to take every day. In fact, it’s at least a few thousand more than what you need to optimize your health.
“Taking 10,000 steps a day can sound daunting. But … even a modest increase in steps taken is tied to significantly lower mortality in older women,” said I-Min Lee, MBBS, ScD, an epidemiologist in the Division of Preventive Medicine at the Brigham. “The message [is]: Step more – even a little more is helpful.”
Lee led a study back in 2019 investigating whether a higher daily step count was associated with a lower mortality rate in older women – and perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that the answer was yes. But what might be a little more unexpected was just how low the step count needed to be for those benefits to kick in: not 10,000 steps, but as few as 4,400.
Other studies have found the same. Research presented at the American Heart Association's Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference in 2021, for example, concluded that the benefits of extra steps for older women started leveling off at around 4,500. That’s less than half the supposedly magical 10,000 target.
But we know what you’re thinking: what about if you’re not an older woman? Well, even then, there’s no need to strain for the 10k: more extensive studies have put the general figure at around 7,500 – 8,000 steps to see real benefits. That's not to say that going further is a bad thing – but it's certainly not the be-all and end-all for good health we may have been led to believe.
“You see this gradual risk reduction in mortality as you get more steps,” explained Amanda Paluch, lead author of a 2021 study measuring the association between all-cause mortality versus step count across a wider range of demographics. “There were substantial health benefits between 7,000 and 10,000 steps but we didn't see an additional benefit from going beyond 10,000 steps.”
Similarly, an October 2022 study found that 8,200 steps per day could protect against obesity, sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and major depressive disorder, while a 2022 Lancet meta-analysis found that the benefits for younger people started to plateau at around 8,000.
Where did 10,000 steps come from?
Which raises the question: where did the 10,000 figure even come from? Incredibly, this original target came not from a study or body of research, but a marketing gimmick: it “seems to have come about from a trade name pedometer sold in 1965 by Yamasa Clock in Japan,” explained Lindsay Bottoms, an Exercise and Health Physiology researcher from the University of Hertfordshire, in a 2021 article for The Conversation
“The device was called ‘Manpo-kei’, which translates to ‘10,000 steps meter’,” she wrote. “This was a marketing tool for the device and has seemed to have stuck across the world as the daily step target.”
It probably isn’t surprising, then, that 10,000 steps isn’t a target promoted by official health bodies such as the US's CDC or UK's NHS – in fact, such bodies often advise against focusing too much on counting steps, pointing out that increasing brisk activity levels is more important. Both agree, though, that adults should get about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every week – and that just so happens to be the rough amount of time it would take to walk about 8,000 steps a day.
“The obsession with hitting 10,000 steps is misguided, especially in the current environment,” Marie Murphy, professor of exercise and health at Ulster University, told Stylist. “It’s better to focus on replacing the current step deficit with something structured, like a cardio workout, gardening, playing football with your kids, or anything that will get you to the moderate-intensity target.”