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Why walking 10,000 steps is not going to make you fitter

A new study finds that there is no scientific basis to the fitness benefits of walking 10,000 steps everyday. Lounge speaks to fitness experts to find out more

Should you be walking 10,000 steps everyday?
Should you be walking 10,000 steps everyday? (Istockphoto)

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Mobility is everything, or so the fitness gurus would have you believe. But the focus on mobility and movement isn’t new. It’s as old as 1965, when a Japanese firm launched the pedometer and popularised the idea that taking 10,000 steps daily leads to better health. The company was Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company, and its pedometer was called Manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000 steps meter” in Japanese. A 2019 study on daily step count by researchers from Harvard Medical School, surmised that this is where the magic number of 10,000 steps comes from. In a separate study published in Lancet last month, researchers wrote that, “Although 10,000 steps per day is widely promoted to have health benefits, there is little evidence to support this recommendation.” 

For this study, published in the Lancet, researchers analysed 15 studies that covered the health and fitness of over 47,000 people, over a period of seven years. They found that while “10,000 steps” is a myth, there are health benefits for adults who clocked more steps. Adults who walked more had a 40% to 53% lower risk of mortality. They also found that taking more steps per day was associated with a progressively lower risk of all-cause mortality but varied by age. There was progressively lower risk of mortality among adults aged 60 years and older who walked about 6,000–8,000 steps per day, and among adults younger than 60 years who walked about 8,000–10,000 steps per day.

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 Whatever the case, one thing all fitness professionals and medical experts agree on is the fact that you need to remain active through the day in order to be healthy. However, it is important that you remain active through the day instead of cramming all the activity in a single, short session, says Gagan Arora, Delhi-based trainer and founder of Kosmic Fitness. “Step target is merely the baseline for daily health,” he says, adding, “This should be complemented by 30-60 minutes of workout.” 

Bengaluru-based CrossFit coach Kaustav Barua argues that the intensity, effort and quality of steps matter more than merely the distance covered. “An intense 5km run is always going to have more health benefits than a leisurely 5km walk,” he points out. “Walking in itself is not enough to get fit. It is good for health but not for getting really fit. It is just the starting point.” However, given our busy lives, we might often miss our scheduled workouts and in such cases walking to get your step count up is a great idea. While walking alone may not help you become very fit or reach your body goals, it is still highly beneficial for your health. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School last year stated that walking three times a week for 20 minutes, produces the same amount of serotonin in the body as the most powerful anti-depressant.  

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Kalpesh Mehta, 41, is a businessman from Kolkata. He says that he rarely ever finds time to work out, given his daily commute and long hours at work, but he tries to start his day with a morning walk. He uses a fitness tracker to keep count of the steps he takes, and he says that he feels better and happier whenever he can get his morning walk in. “I try to walk three to four times a week and I know that it won’t make me as agile as I used to be in my early 20s but it certainly makes me feel better and healthier about myself. I don’t care if I get the 10,000 steps goal or not as long as I can get the morning walk in,” he says. 

Whether you believe in it or not, the magic figure of 10,000 steps isn’t going away soon. The authors of the Lancet study state that counting daily steps is a simple and feasible measure for monitoring and promoting physical activity globally as fitness trackers and mobile devices increase in popularity. “Our findings suggest mortality benefits, particularly for older adults, can occur at levels less than the popular reference value of 10,000 steps per day,” they write. So, to sum up, don’t bust a gut trying to walk 10,000 steps each day. Be mobile, and exercise.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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