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Do we really need 10,000 steps a day?

A fitness expert delves into the history of the 10000 step goal and decodes the science behind it

Is 10,000 steps the penultimate fitness goal?
Is 10,000 steps the penultimate fitness goal? (Unsplash)

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As Hippocrates once said, "Walking is man's best medicine". Or, as we would now say, "Sitting is the new smoking." Irrespective of which delightfully moralistic statement de jour you prefer, the bottom line is this—we need to move more. This fact is reiterated more than ever before, thanks to the endless covid waves and lockdowns that we have lived through the last couple of years.

In a bid to get in my daily steps in the confines of my apartment, I have become an avid pacer. On average, I was achieving approximately 2,000 steps each day--my smartphone decided that was I was a disappointing underachiever. It now reminds me to get up and move to get in my daily steps. As I endlessly paced around the house, probably on the 16th lap of my living room, I stopped dead in my tracks. Was it even necessary to get to 10,000 steps to feel healthy and motivated and keep the extra pounds at bay? If I don't get to the bottom of this fast, my poor apartment carpets will be threadbare in a week.

So I did what I do best. I researched it. Was 10,000 steps the penultimate fitness goal? And what was the science behind it? 

Also read: Why slow eating promotes better digestion, satisfaction and weight maintenance

If you're wondering what 10,000 steps are in kilometres  (I'm sure the thought flickered across your mind), it's approximately 8km. And according to one random internet search, 10,000 steps should take you about one hour and forty minutes to complete. Though I'm convinced that the person who posted this is 6 foot 7 and has legs like a stork. 

I also discovered that counting steps wasn't just a modern obsession—a smattering of sources on the internet credit Leonard di Vinci with sketching out the first pedometer prototype. And according to Interesting Engineering, the third US President, Thomas Jefferson, too, sported a homemade pedometer through the streets of Paris, which he eventually brought back to the United States. This pedometer became known as the "Tomish meter." 

However, the endless pursuit of 10,000 steps is a much more modern invention: It seems to have emerged in Japan in 1965. The country was then riding on the fitness fever of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and people were getting crazy about fitness. Around this time, a company called Yamasa produced a pedometer with a catchy name: Manpo-Kei that translates into the 10,000-steps-meter. Their selling slogan was this-- Healthcare with 10,000 steps/day.

There are other origin stories. According to the website, One Million Steps, for instance, a research team led by Dr Yoshiro Hatano, a professor at the Kyushu University of Health and Welfare, found that Japanese people walked between 3,500 - 5,000 steps per day. The research team rationalised that if people could walk upwards of 10,000 steps per day, it would burn 3-400 kcal and improve their health. However, the version of this story that I liked the best was Dr I-Min Lee's version. Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, claims that  10,000 was chosen because the Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a person walking (I googled it, it does). 

Regardless of how it was determined, the 10,000 step goal was aspirational and lofty enough to stick in people's minds for almost five decades. Studies that followed show that although 10,000 is a nice round figure and motivational target, you can achieve your health and wellness goals in under 10,000 steps. Lee's research, for instance, shows that a mere 7,500 steps per day can reduce your mortality rate.

Also read: How a midday walk can be a much-needed stress buster

After reviewing several studies, there seem to be three critical factors towards someone's health and wellness; consistency, improvement, and social engagement.

The best example of consistency being key to success was published in Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism. The patients with diabetes and hypertension were assigned two different groups. One group contained people who were told to walk 3,000 steps per day, the other 30-60 minutes. Although the step-counters still failed to achieve their 3,000 steps daily goal, they still increased their daily movement by 20%, more than the second group. The increase was enough to see a 40% reduction in their diseases.

We can also learn from this study that it doesn't matter where you start, as long as your goal is to improve continually. You could be a couch potato or someone who potters around throughout the day. Slowly increasing your step count over time is best for your health and wellness. Practically speaking, that means if someone currently walks 2,000 steps on any given day, it's more motivational to create a realistic goal that says "walk 3,000 steps in a day" rather than tell them to walk for "60 minutes" or "10,000 steps".

Yet another study called 10,000 Steps Ghent conducted in Ghent University, Belgium, measured the outcomes of 10,000 steps in their participants. Approximately 50% could keep up to the 10,000 step goals during the initial research. However, after four years, the adherence dropped dramatically. The researchers attributed this drop to participants getting older, and the lack of community support systems to support social walking leads me to my final point.

What this means, of course, is that walking endlessly around my living room and watching the step counter increase may not work out in the long run. It is too isolating a motivational strategy towards health and fitness. Honestly, creating an accountability partner or obtaining a "buddy" makes exercise more enjoyable by a long mile. This is all the more reason to ride out Covid-19 to go back to our social groups and make fitness part of our social outings so that our fitness sticks. 





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