10,000 Steps A Day: Sound Science Or Fad?
How many steps per day does it take to be healthy? 10? 10,000? 10,000,000?
The more you push the question, the more it starts to feel a little silly. Yet, we’re so inundated with step-counters, pedometers, and other health-tracking devices that it’s easier than ever to accept that the central requirement for staying healthy is taking a particular number of steps every day. Is there any truth to the assumed value of taking 10,000 steps a day?
As it turns out, for some people these sorts of programs and devices encourage more healthful behaviors. But for others, it’s not a good match, and might create a regimen that actually prevents attaining improved health.
Any one-size-fits-all plan or program is generally not to be trusted. Different people have different needs, and no one system will be ideal for everyone.
Today we’ll have a look at the science behind step-counting, how this fad got started, and whether it has anything of value to offer for your bones and your health.
The History Of Steps
The association between the figure of 10,000 steps and good health traces to the 1960s, when a Japanese company that manufactured pedometers designed one to count a particular number of steps: 10,000. It’s name, manpo-kei literally translates to “10,000-step meter.” So one of (if not the) first significant use of that figure isn’t even medical in nature. It’s commercial.
The appeal of such a nice round number clearly had an effect on scientists, and studies of the effects of taking specifically 10,000 steps per day later appeared. The fact that those studies were then used to sell this brand of pedometer doesn’t necessarily make them faulty, but it does raise questions about conflicts of interest.
Recently, with the advent of ubiquitous cell phones and ever-growing bluetooth-enabled gadgets, pedometers have seen a massive resurgence. From Fitbits to smart phone motion sensors, they’re easy to get, and even those who don’t want one are probably already carry the technology with them daily.
More Physical Activity Is Better
As it turns out, 10,000 steps isn’t some magic threshold that ensures good health. And the value of step-counters isn’t in making sure you complete this ritual. The more physical activity you practice, the healthier you’ll be, and step-counters are only useful in so far as they help you to set goals and motivate you to stay active.
This is underscored by a recent study that found that 15,000 steps might be an even better standard than 10,000 steps.1 The cross-sectional study of healthy Scottish postal workers compared the number of steps taken and amount of sedentary time spent with cardiovascular risk and waist circumference.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that those workers who spent the least time sedentary, and the most time walking, were the healthiest. The participants that showed no metabolic syndrome features walked more than 15,000 steps a day.1
Does that mean we all should be walking 15,000 steps a day?
Not necessarily. Nor would any reasonable health professional make a blanket recommendation like that for every person.
Problems With Counting Steps
There are three major problems with step counting that are raised time and time again by health advocates.
- Not every step is equal, and not every physical activity is counted as a “step”
- Everyone’s body is different, and has different needs
- Walking isn’t enough on its own
Imagine that you’re late for an important meeting. It would be inappropriate to run down the hallway, but you’re probably walking with some serious gusto. If it’s a long walk, your heart rate rises, your breathing changes, and your body is fully engaged.
Now imagine you’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. Exhausted and half asleep, you lumber to the kitchen at a snail’s pace. You exert so little energy that your body barely wakes up, and might not even remember this episode in the morning.
We understand the difference between the physical requirements of these two types of steps, but a step counter doesn’t. If you take 10,000 lackadaisical steps, slow as you please, and with no urgency or output of energy, then you’re not actually getting useful exercise. But if you take 10,000 fully-engaged steps with the intention of exercising your body, you’re probably getting exactly what you need. For this reason, a step-counter might provide false information about the benefits of your walking activity.
Furthermore, the ability to track your physical activity with a step-counter is limited by the technology. Riding a bicycle, going for a swim or lifting weights are all activities that don’t register on a step counter, even though those forms of exercise are valuable. It’s just not an accurate way to measure whether you’re getting sufficient physical activity.
A Different Model Of Goal-Setting
Some experts have suggested that instead of creating a repetition-goal that limits the type of activity performed, the aim should be to achieve certain amount of time exercising. The Canadian national public health non profit ParticipACTION recommends 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity every week for people aged 18-64.2 The minutes can be broken up in whatever way works for the individual: a few long sessions or many shorter workouts. This approach holds space for whatever kind of exercise works best for someone, while still allowing the person to set a goal.
As the 15,000 step study suggests, the more physically active you are, the better. If a goal becomes a limitation, it’s defeating the purpose. So even the more flexible 150 minute per week plan might wind up preventing improvement. This leads towards the second issue on our list: every body is different.
For some people, 10,000 steps might be an unreasonable goal. If, for example, you are unable to walk, the mania about taking the right number of steps seems to suggest that good health is unattainable for you, which is ridiculous. Even if walking for exercise is an option, starting this practice with a goal you’re not ready for might lead you to give up in frustration.
Our bodies are personal and specific. Everyone gravitates towards different forms of exercise and different physical practices. The fad-like nature of the 10,000 steps-a-day goal risks alienating people for whom walking or running simply isn’t sustainable or desirable.
The through-line between the efficacy of step-counters that celebrate a particular number, and having a cumulative amount of time you try to exercise each week is goal-setting. Most of the success of step-counters is actually just that people respond well to setting a specific goal.
A systematic review conducted by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine looked at 26 studies that examined the efficacy of pedometers at improving health outcomes for subjects. They found that pedometer users increased their physical activity on average by 26% and were healthier for it. An important indicator for seeing that success was having a specific goal to meet.3
Those people might have responded just as well to a goal of 150 minutes of physical activity a week, and if they chose higher intensity exercises, they might have seen even more improvement.
Is Walking Enough?
The final often overlooked problem with using a step-counter as the ultimate answer to fitness is that it depends upon walking as a primary form of exercise. While walking is low-intensity it certainly confers health benefits. But studies have shown that walking alone isn’t enough to stay healthy and fit.
A study at the University of Alberta put 128 participants on one of two exercise plans: a traditional cardio-centric plan that included moderate intensity activities and equipment like treadmills and stationary bikes, or a 10,000 step per day plan. The group doing the more varied routine was instructed to attain a particular intensity level, while the steppers were allowed to self-regulate.
Both groups saw improved health metrics over the six month experiment, but not in equal measure. The more varied, moderate intensity group experienced a 10% decrease in systolic blood pressure, whereas the step-counting group only saw a 4% decrease. The higher intensity group also increased their peak oxygen uptake, a marker of aerobic fitness, by 10%, while the step counters only improved by 4%.4 Here’s what the study’s authors had to say:
“Generally, low-intensity activity such as walking alone is not likely going to give anybody marked health benefits compared to programs that occasionally elevate the intensity… The 10,000-step or pedometer-based walking programs are great for people–they are motivating, and provide an excellent starting point for beginning an activity program, but to increase the effectiveness, one must add some intensity or “huff and puff” to their exercise.”4
Stepping Into Stronger Bones
Exercise is a foundational element of the Osteoporosis Reversal Program, and is an essential part of the fight against fracture risk. Without a regular routine of physical activity, general health is not possible, and bone health in particular is compromised. Weight-bearing exercise triggers the production of new bone, and without it we simply cannot overcome the bone-depleting effects of age.
Walking, is a weight bearing exercise, so it’s a great tool for improving bone health, as explained in the Program. If keeping track of your steps motivates you to go for a walk after dinner, or to travel on foot instead of driving, that’s great.
But as the studies we’ve looked at today show, letting an arbitrary goal like 10,000 steps become the end all and the be all of your exercise ambitions is limiting and not necessarily the best workout routine for everyone. In addition to potentially distracting you from more valuable physical activities, step-counting often winds up being a short-term endeavor, just like so many fads are. Eventually, the novelty wears off, and the repetition leads to a loss of interest.
Building a healthy lifestyle that supports strong and fracture-resistant bones, means building well-rounded and sustainable exercise habits. Focusing on the most bone-healthy exercises is essential for Savers, and while walking 10,000 or 15,000 (or more!) steps can be a part of that, there should also be a focus on the specific movements that can maximize new bone formation.
The Densercise™ Epidensity Training System provides a toolkit of easy-to-accomplish 15-minute workouts designed to help you do exactly that. No fancy gadgets (or any equipment!) are required. Unlike the repetitive nature of some routines, Densercise™ has variety built in, so you stay engaged in both mind and body.
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Good health and strong bones are not a place you can reach by taking a magic number of steps every day; they are the results of a lifestyle and a set of habits that you practice. Start with more varied ways of staying active, and your bones will grow stronger with you.
Till next time,
1 Tigbe WW, Granat MH, Sattar N, Lean MEJ. “Time spent in sedentary posture is associated with waist circumference and cardiovascular risk.” Int J Obes (Lond). 2017 May;41(5):689-696. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28138134
2 “Benefits & Guidelines Adults 18-64.” ParticipACTION. 2016.
3 Dena M. Bravata, MD, MS; Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD; Vandana Sundaram, MPH; et al. “Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health A Systematic Review.” JAMA. 2007;298(19):2296-2304.
4 University of Alberta. “Walking Not Enough For Significant Exercise Benefits.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 September 2006.