Do we really need to do 10,000 steps a day?
by Jake Gifford
In the age of pedometers, smart watches and fitness trackers, the goal of achieving 10,000 steps is a prominent and inescapable one, where it’s hard to find someone who has never heard of the focus and perhaps even harder to find someone with a fitness tracker who isn’t trying to at least work towards that goal as a baseline.
Having been widely promoted amongst fitness tech companies, mainstream media, health & fitness professionals and even the NHS & academic institutions, the step goal has become considered an alternative recommendation to increase physical activity levels amongst populations. Consequently the 10,000 step target has somewhat become a target that we’ve largely accepted uncritically as something we should all be doing as a society, but how did it come about?
The first trace of its existence dates back to 1965 in relation to the first wearable pedometer named ‘Manpo-kei’, which translates to ’10,000 step meter’. The pedometer was developed by a company called Yamesa to capitalise on the previous year’s success of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and thanks to a clever marketing campaign, was hugely successful and consequently influenced how future companies promoted their products.
Whilst we’d typically assume that health interventions are supposedly ‘evidence-based’ at the time of its inception, there wasn’t any evidence behind the promotion of such a number; instead, it was deemed a quantity that was reflective of what the company considered to be a ‘healthy and active lifestyle’. Nevertheless, due to its wide promotion towards the general public over the course of a few decades, researchers have spent considerable amount of time looking into the potential health benefits of a 10,000-step goal and its efficacy as a public health intervention. A recent systematic review looked into the evidence behind the 10,000 steps and whilst there are unsurprising health benefits associated with the daily target, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that its promotion is an effective intervention to increase physical activity levels among populations (1).
When I was originally asked the question, which prompted this post about my thoughts on the 10,000 steps goal and what is “enough”, or “too much”, I’ll make the fair assumption that this is in relation to health. The 10,000-step goal is currently considered one of many alternative recommendations by researchers and policy makers to the time based recommendation of 150-minutes/week moderate-intensity physical activity, which are arguably just as commonly known and accepted.
These time-based national and global guidelines for physical activity were developed as a consequence of the general consensus that there is biomedical evidence of physical activity providing an array of health benefits and reducing all-cause mortality (2,3). We also recognise that there is a dose-response relationship between physical activity levels and all-cause mortality with the most benefit gained from those who move from doing ‘nothing’ to something, and diminishing returns existing beyond 60-90 minutes/week (4).
Whilst these time-based guidelines were initially intended for policy makers, professionals, and practitioners to use, they are inadvertently being treated and used, as an intervention where they are often widely promoted on a variety of channels and it would be naïve to suggest otherwise.
But are these recommendations effective or viable intervention?
Given that both 10,000 steps and 150 minutes/week recommendations are both utilised as interventions, you’d largely expect that there would be evidence of their effectiveness in promoting physical activity. Granted, there is clear biomedical evidence, which shows that the recommendations are efficacious in delivering health benefits, however, no evidence is provided to suggest that these recommendations are achievable targets. It could be reasoned that it’s more than likely unachievable, as only 23-32% of women and 33-43% men in the UK are meeting the guidelines (2).
It would seem there is insufficient evidence to suggest that 150 minutes is an achievable or realistic target and therefore the decision to recommend 150 minutes/week of physical activity similar to the 10,000 steps, is not based on sufficient evidence. Rather, these recommendations can be considered unsupported value judgements as to what we might perceive to be beneficial rather than appropriate evidence on what might be an achievable target for the general population.
I appreciate that many might suggest that we should be encouraging people to be active regardless and that goals such as 10,000 steps or time-based recommendations can only be a positive thing, however with no established proven benefits of promoting these recommendations and potential for unintended effects and an opportunity cost that isn’t strictly true. A potential harmful effect could be that the majority of the population might perceive these recommendations as unachievable and therefore feel discouraged rather than encouraged to get active (5). Consequently, this would mean that guidelines might be more harmful than effectively not promoting any guidelines at all and the continued promotion of them might overlook the potential for alternative recommendations.
When determining appropriate levels of physical activity for both others and ourselves, we need to look beyond the limitations of a biomedical model, which places the burden of responsibility on the individual and omits the nuance and complexities of our lives.
If you enjoy working towards a goal and it isn’t done in a compulsive manner whereby failure to reach a given target feels demoralising or compulsory and it doesn’t negatively impact your health, then, by all means, go ahead. I’d also argue that exceeding the recommendations isn’t necessarily a negative thing, as those who engage in sports or work manual jobs are likely to exceed the recommendations.
However, if you find it impacts other aspects of your life such as sleep, nutrition, stress, social aspects and other factors which are influential for our health then perhaps it would be wise to reevaluate whether the goals you’ve set specifically are realistic or whether you need any specifically at all.
Doing what we can, when we can, if we want and if our circumstances allow whilst seeking activities that are pleasurable to us is probably a more beneficial and worthwhile pursuit for the majority than working towards a time or step-based goal, particularly for those of us who struggle to meet these targets and feel our self-worth is particularly wrapped up in them.
So if you’re feeling like you’re getting caught up amongst all the numbers, let this serve as a reminder that physical activity is only one aspect of our health and can be constrained by the limitations of our lives and experiences, so don’t dwell on it too much and certainly don’t let your worth be defined by the steps or minutes you do.
1. Wattanapisit A, Thanamee S. Evidence Behind 10,000 Steps Walking. J Heal Res [Internet]. 2017;31(3):241–8. Available from: https://www.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/jhealthres/article/view/89095
2. Department of Health. Start Active, Stay Active: A report on physical activity from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officer. 2011;62. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/216370/dh_128210.pdf
3. Warburton DER, Nicol CW, Bredin SSD. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Can Med Assoc J [Internet]. 2006 Mar 14;174(6):801 LP-809. Available from: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/174/6/801.abstract
4. Wen CP, Wai JPM, Tsai MK, Yang YC, Cheng TYD, Lee MC, et al. Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: A prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2011;378(9798):1244–53.
5. Brawley LR, Latimer AE. Physical activity guides for Canadians: Messaging strategies, realistic expectations for change, and evaluation. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007;32(SUPPL. 2E):170–85.