Forget calories, heartbeats or even weight on the scale. For a lot of people, fitness is all about steps:
Haven’t hit your 10,000-step goal for the day? Then you better walk laps around the house before the clock strikes midnight. If you can manage to edge out whoever is at the top of your step-count leaderboard, that’s even better.
Does that inner monologue sound familiar? For all of the focus many fitness-minded people put on that 10,000-step milestone – which comes pre-programmed into virtually every fitness tracker on the market – the goal is actually pretty arbitrary.
According to one Sports Medicine review, it all goes back to 1960s Japan, when pedometers sold there were marketed with the name “manpo-kei,” meaning “10,000 steps meter.” For some reason, the number stuck, and now, nearly 60 years later, we are still chasing that 10,000-step goal.
“There’s nothing magical about it other than it’s a nice, round number,” says Dr. Dr. James Borchers, associate professor of clinical family medicine and director of sports medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t even have a step recommendation. Instead, its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise – along with two or more days of strength-based exercise – per week.
You could easily hit those goals without taking 10,000 steps per day: Biking, swimming and squats all require zero steps. And, honestly, if you have 30 minutes to dedicate to exercise per day, spending that half hour performing high-intensity (albeit no-step) strength training is likely more beneficial than spending it walking – or even running. In one Harvard School of Public Health study of 10,500 adults, those who strength trained for 20 minutes each day gained less visceral fat, which is linked to long-term health complications and premature death over 12 years compared to those who engaged in the same amount of cardiovascular exercise. In one Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise randomized control trial, women who engaged in an exercise program designed to meet the current exercise guidelines took about 7,000 steps per day.
On the flip side, you could take 10,000 steps and still not meet current exercise recommendations. After all, as far as your pedometer is concerned, a step is a step; it doesn’t matter if you ran it while busting out an 8-minute mile or took it walking from your couch to your bed. Hence, this is why research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests that most healthy adults take anywhere between 4,000 and 18,000 steps each day, which is a huge range.
According to a recent position stand from the American College of Sports Medicine, step counts aren’t accurate measures of exercise quality and shouldn’t be used as a sole benchmark of physical activity.
Why Steps Still Matter
But don’t ditch your pedometer or step-count goal altogether. According to PLOS ONE research, step count is inversely related to one’s risk of death. Translation: The more steps you take per day, the better your health tends to be.
Why? Largely because we spend too much time during our days planted on our keisters. “No matter your exercise routine, it’s important not to discount the importance of getting up and moving more throughout the day,” says Borchers, who notes that constant sitting – whether it’s in the car or at your desk – increases your risk of death regardless of how much you exercise.
And regular exercisers who hit the federal government’s exercise recommendations still sit too much, according to research from Northwestern University.
“The goal shouldn’t be hitting one particular number, but rather increasing your current step count, whatever it is,” Borchers says. That, in addition to meeting your overall exercise recommendations.