Shalin Mehta, 41, religiously checks his step-count every night after dinner. If his activity tracker indicates anything less than 10,000 steps, he climbs down three floors to the building parking lot and walks till he makes up the deficit. Between the step count and few weeks of intermittent fasting, the Kolkata-based businessman managed to shed about 4 kg over three lockdown months.
So, are 10,000 steps a day enough to make you fit or is it just another marketing gimmick?
Contrary to the popular belief that 10,000 steps is a 21st century “discovery”, the concept first made its appearance in Japan in 1965 as a marketing ploy to sell pedometers, says a 2019 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) by a team led by Harvard Medical School researchers. In 1965, the Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company launched a pedometer called Manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000 steps meter” in Japanese and that’s probably where today’s magic number comes from.
The JAMA study, Association Of Step Volume And Intensity With All-Cause Mortality In Older Women, found that women who averaged approximately 4,400 steps a day had significantly lower mortality rates compared with the least active women who took approximately 2,700 steps per day. Mortality rates progressively decreased before leveling out at approximately 7,500 steps a day.
Strictly speaking, then, "10,000 steps" is a marketing ploy. Most fitness purists would argue it is not a magic number that would improve anyone’s fitness levels, but the pragmatist would point out that it does create awareness. “Literate humans like numbers. Nowadays, everyone believes that if you do 10,000 steps a day it’s good for your health…people are talking a lot more about health and fitness,” says Gagan Arora, Delhi-based coach and founder of Kosmic Fitness.
In another study, Large-Scale Physical Activity Data Reveal Worldwide Activity Inequality, published in Nature in 2017, researchers studied smartphone data recorded by an accelerometer (a device that measures the number of steps taken) and found that the worldwide average number of steps accrued daily is approximately 5,000.
“Most fitness coaches would tell you merely tracking and meeting the daily target of 10,000 steps isn’t enough. It has nothing to do with fitness and everything to do with selling a product,” says Kaustav Baruah, former manager at Fitness First and a Level 3 CrossFit coach from Bangalore. “Walking didn’t make anyone fit or healthy…it’s just a start. You have to take into consideration the intensity, effort, quality and the way those steps are achieved.”
For instance, steps accrued in a high-effort, quick 10km run or while playing an hour of football are a lot more beneficial and effective in improving health and fitness than someone who accumulates them during a leisurely stroll. As Baruah points out, “someone who starts tapping their feet while sitting on their chairs just to win the step count competition at their workplace.”
Movement plays a greater role in improving overall health than exercise, explains Arora. “Think of movement as the cricket ground and exercise as the pitch. There is a lot of action on the pitch every ball but all the fielders are equally important to make a team win,” he says. Keeping a high step target is merely the baseline for daily health. One can accomplish this by walking at office or at home, trotting up and down the staircase or doing 50 jumping jacks every hour. “The active day should be complemented by 30-60 minutes of workout and it should not be a reason to escape movement for the rest of the day. There should be no long periods devoid of physical movement,” says Arora.
A lot of the conversation about step count and fitness trackers is due to social media and advertising, argues Baruah. “Who really has the time to look back and understand what have they achieved by running up those numbers on their trackers?” he says. “Anyone who puts herself through an intense session of CrossFit or an HIIT workout doesn’t need a silly watch to tell them they are working hard to get fit. They may have achieved their first pull-up or squatted the heaviest or ran 10 km in under 60 minutes—these are the real markers, to me, that show improvement and growth on a fitness scale.”
Arora, who is more accepting of 10,000 steps, believes the figure gives people something to get off their chair and start thinking about fitness and a better lifestyle. “People are more aware today of the importance of sleep and food in achieving good health,” he says.
Though Arora and Baruah do not agree on the step-count issue, both firmly believe exercise alone is not enough for a positive health and fitness transformation. Both agree that mindful eating and good sleeping habits along with a daily exercise regimen is the path to fitness.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.