How many steps do you walk on an average day? And does it really even matter? Well, here’s the thing, it actually does – but the number you need to hit might not be what we all think. Thanks to some new Harvard Medical School research, we now know much about the minimum distance to aim for in terms of reducing mortality risk. There are some key numbers here: the question is, do you know what they are?
Of course, there are plenty of need-to-know numbers when it comes to healthy living. There’s the now famous “five-a-day,”, referring to the number of portions of fruit and vegetables you should eat. Then there’s the eight glasses of water – or two-liter rule. Many will be familiar with recommended restrictions too, such as setting a limit of 14 units of alcohol per week for men and seven for women.
All of these numbers are specifically related to diet, or course. Think about the other health-related figures we can now track. There’s the number of calories we burn. Our heart rate, of course. Blood pressure. And we have long been obsessed with our weight. It seems a natural step, if you’ll pardon the pun, to then home in on exercise and consider the number of physical steps we take per day. And for quite a while now we’ve had the means to measure just that.
There is a certain device with which you may already be familiar: one that records the number of steps we take. It’s called, somewhat simply and obviously, a step counter. Or to give it its official name, a pedometer. The consistently impressive sales of these devices – a reported 125 million units were shipped around the world in 2017 – seem to suggest that people just love measuring stuff.
Unsurprisingly, the pedometer has become ubiquitous. Popular brands include Fitbit, Garmin, Jawbone, Apple, Samsung and so many more besides. And then there’s the Japanese pedometer called the manpo-kei, or the “10,000-steps meter” as it translates. The name itself is pretty revealing as far as the desired target is concerned.
The history of the manpo-kei is very much entwined with the origins of a popular belief: that 10,000 steps a day is the magic number. That is, for maximum health benefits, we all should be seeking to hit a target of 10,000 steps a day. Much like five-a-day and two liters a day, 10,000 steps has become one of those universal health mantras.
Believe it or not, the concept of the manpo-kei goes all the way back to the 1960s. Tokyo was due to host the Olympic Games in 1964, and in the build-up to that popular event the Japanese nation embarked on something of a health kick. Perhaps for the very first time on a nationwide basis, the benefits of regular exercise began to be promoted.
In particular, the Japanese population began to focus on the fact that daily activity was one of the best means to ward off all manner of health nasties. Tellingly, obesity was becoming an issue for the first time, so there was that to consider. But there was also a growing belief, of course subsequently verified, that exercise would help fight afflictions such as hypertension and diabetes: lifestyle diseases if you will.
The solution is as straightforward today as it was back in the 1960s: simple walking was identified as the most practical means of staving off lifestyle diseases. Almost anyone could do it, it cost nothing and could even be incorporated into your existing daily activities. No one needed a coach. You didn’t even need any equipment. But equipment was developed anyway in the form of the pedometer.
But why measure steps, exactly? “Steps are a basic unit of locomotion and as such, provide an easy-to-understand metric of ambulation.” So said the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, the body responsible for putting together physical activity recommendations and guidelines for Americans.
There are more reasons why steps are so useful to measure. “Steps can be at light-, moderate-, and vigorous-intensity levels, providing a range of exertion choice to promote walking at all ages and for all levels of fitness.” Again, that’s according to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. In short, you can perform steps at different intensities. Think running in comparison to walking, for example.
The conclusions you can draw from these facts are important. “For these reasons, the measure of steps per day has the potential to significantly improve the translation of research findings into public health recommendations, policies, and programs,” said the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. That’s essentially why pedometers have become so prevalent, starting way back in 1960s Japan with the manpo-kei device.
As we’ve already said, manpo-kei literally translates as “10,000-steps meter” in Japanese. But where, exactly, did this number come from? Why 10,000? Surely it was based on detailed research? You’d be forgiven for thinking there was a crack team of scientists behind the scenes who, after years of dedicated study, had finally reached their “eureka”moment. But there wasn’t. It turns out it was all just clever marketing.
It was simply a sole Japanese company – Yamasa – who came up with the idea of 10,000 steps to sell its product to the population. And goodness it worked. Because here we are, more than half a century later, and we still focus on this idea of 10,000 steps. That’s the power of a good promotional campaign.
But why precisely 10,000? “There wasn’t really any evidence for it at the time,” University of Tennessee professor David Bassett told The Guardian newspaper in the U.K., “They just felt that was a number that was indicative of an active lifestyle and should be healthy,” added Bassett, head of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies at the university.
The good people of Japan loved the idea and pretty soon everyone else did too. Perhaps the most popular brand of pedometer, Fitbit, has become synonymous with the habit of measuring the number of steps you take, for example. Known collectively as ‘wearables’, no matter the brand, research by the company Gartner suggests that 500 million people are wearing them in 2020. You may very well be one of them.
But why the craze? It can’t just be about the desire to hit that magic 10,000-step target, can it? At its core, this obsession with the number of steps we take really all boils down to the dangers of inactivity. Being inactive simply isn’t good for us, and while our knowledge of that fact has only increased, modern life has somehow conspired against us.
How so, you may ask? Well, for a start we now have luxuries of which our forebears could only have dreamed. We can drive wherever we need to go and we have all manner of gadgets and machines to take care of previously tough, physical tasks. Add to that the fact that many of us now perform jobs that involve sitting at a desk all day and, in terms of taking steps, it’s all a bit of a recipe for disaster.
Sedentary lifestyles are dangerous, but for many that’s what our day-to-day living now looks like. The fact is, unless you actually put in the effort to walk, jog or run, most of us will simply not need to move our feet much in terms of our daily routines. Getting active in the 21st century is very much about motivation rather than necessity.
But just how harmful is being inactive? What can happen? According to the Johns Hopkins University website, there are many ills connected to inactivity and being unfit. The first is the risk of developing high blood pressure, which is of course bad for the heart. On the flip side, exercise can help in reducing the risk of contracting type 2 diabetes.
But that’s not all. Again, according to Johns Hopkins University, inactivity may increase the risk of contracting certain types of cancer. Being inactive may also “add to feelings of anxiety and depression”. And again, on the flip side, being overweight but active reduces the risk of contracting certain diseases, while older people can help “reduce their risk for falls and improve their ability to do daily activities” by staying active physically.
And in terms of inactivity demographics, Johns Hopkins has some interesting facts. The first is that inactivity does, as perhaps one would expect, increase with age. Another, perhaps less obvious, is that men tend to be more active than women. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, though, is that white adults tend to be more active than non-whites. But then geography also has a part to play. How so? You may well ask…
As it turns out, some people simply live longer in certain parts of the world. These areas – such as Ikaria in Greece – have been coined “Blue Zones”. But what exactly are some of the characteristics of people living in Blue Zones? Diet is, unsurprisingly, crucial to creating a healthy daily regime. But then so is sex after 50, drinking a little wine, napping… and built-in exercise: that is, walking.
All of which conveniently brings us back to this idea of the 10,000 steps – a target that has become seemingly so set in stone that it is practically ingrained. “If you are going to count steps, the magnitude of your goal matters. Most tracking devices are set to a default goal of 10,000 steps – the famous number that we all know we should reach,” wrote Claudia Hammond in a 2019 BBC article titled “Do we need to walk 10,000 steps a day?” Anyone with a pedometer might have already asked themselves that very question.
Yet Hammond then dug a little deeper into the 10,000-step obsession. “You might assume that this number has emerged after years of research to ascertain whether 8,000, 10,000 or maybe 12,000 might be ideal for long-term health. In fact, no such large body of research exists,” she added. Well, it may not be a large body, but there are, finally, some revealing research results into which we can sink our collective teeth.
In 2019 a report was published in JAMA Internal Medicine that looked at the idea of steps and their impact on mortality. Dr I-Min Lee is a Harvard Medical School professor of medicine. She also works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital as an associate epidemiologist. Along with her colleagues, Dr Lee wanted to look at the validity of the 10,000 steps concept.
In their research, the Harvard Medical School team focused on older women; their average age came out at 72. Measuring the group’s steps for an entire week, the team then measured outcomes over the course of a period spanning more than four years. And the results, as far as the “10,000 steps” rule was concerned, were enlightening.
First up, the research team found that nowhere near 10,000 steps were needed to lower the risk of death, at least in this particular demographic, anyway. The magic number here was as low as 4,400 steps per day. That was in comparison to 2,700 steps a day, which by most calculations would be considered typical of a sedentary lifestyle.
So the good news here is that if you are a 72-year-old woman, you don’t need to aim for a number anywhere near as high as 10,000. In fact, less than half that number proves to be valuable in terms of achieving a longer life. But then you may well ask if going above that 4,400 number can add even more value. And this is where it starts to get really interesting.
Going above 4,400 steps indeed seems to further the benefits. But what about that magic number of 10,000, the very figure inspiring the name of the Japanese manpo-kei and a number that has been adopted by heavyweights of the likes of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the American Heart Foundation and even the World Health Organization in terms of a recommended daily target?
According to Dr Lee’s team’s findings, the benefits of increased steps continue to grow, but then level off. But at what number? Well, again, if you are a 72-year-old female, the magic number is 7,500. You don’t need to be a math whizz to work out that this number is significantly lower than the fabled 10,000.
As with all research studies there are any number of variables in play. Death comes about due to all manner of factors and combinations of individual genetic and lifestyle characteristics. Diet, for example. And measuring the results over four years clearly doesn’t factor in what happened for the previous X number of years that these particular research subjects were on the planet. And then there are those Blue Zones, of course.
The research of Dr Lee and her team also attempted to consider stepping intensity. This relates to the fact that a step at high intensity – sprinting, for example – is not necessarily the same as a step taken at a gentle walking pace. Yet the research findings suggested that “stepping intensity was not clearly related to lower mortality rates after accounting for total steps per day”.
And once again, these research findings applied to only one study group: older women. The number of steps that benefit you will, of course, change depending on any number of demographic considerations, such as your gender, your age and your pre-existing health. But at least these Harvard Medical School results can change the conversation.
Because the fact of the matter is, the very idea of doing 10,000 steps is at best a shot in the dark, health benefits-wise. It always was. “There’s no health guidance that exists to back it up,” Mike Brennan told The Guardian. And he should know: Brennan works at Public Health England as the national lead for physical activity. Yet because so many wearable pedometers have been programmed with a 10,000-step target, that goal has been widely propagated.
Research studies certainly haven’t helped up until now, either. “This number [10,000] keeps being reinforced because of the way research studies are designed,” Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor at the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring based at the prestigious University of Massachusetts Amherst told The Guardian.
Until Dr Lee’s team delved a little deeper, it had all been about proving the value of 10,000 steps. “So, the study might find that 10,000 helps you lose more weight than 5,000 and then the media see it and report: ‘Yes, you should go with 10,000 steps,’ but that could be because the study has only tested two numbers. It didn’t test 8,000, for example, and it didn’t test 12,000,” added Tudor-Locke.
The fact is, it seems regularly hitting the 10,000-step mark would do you as much good as hitting considerably fewer: 7,500, for example. Plus, it pays to consider that many people are simply intimidated by the prospect of hitting five figures. The result is that they simply give up. In truth, a much more practical approach can work.
Tudor-Locke probably summed it up best. “We know that sedentary lifestyles are bad, and if you’re taking fewer than 5,000 steps a day on average this can lead to weight-gain, increase your risk of bone loss, muscle atrophy, becoming diabetic and this litany of issues,” she told The Guardian. There is a massive caveat, though.
Tudor-Locke hit the nail on the head, and at the same time validated Dr Lee’s team’s findings, by saying, “There seems to be an obsession about 10,000 and how many steps are enough, yet it’s more important, from a public health point of view, to get people off their couches. The question we should really be asking is: how many steps are too few?” Is that the question you are asking, or are you simply going for that pre-programmed – in more ways than one – 10,000 mark?