10,000 Steps a Day to Stay Healthy Is a Myth

by Rebekah Goode
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Person checking FitBit while exercising

David Bassett, professor in Kinesiology, Recreation, & Sport Studies, conducted a study with I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues to debunk the age-old myth that walking 10,000 steps each day is the bare minimum needed to stay healthy. While there are obvious benefits to clocking in 10,000 steps a day, the high number of steps —which comes to approximately 5 miles— may feel unattainable to some.

Below is an article about this study featured in the Wall Street Journal:


Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t clocking 10,000 steps a day.

That threshold, often billed as the minimum for good health, originated in marketing, not medicine, when a Japanese company launched a pedometer in 1965 named, in English, the “10,000-step meter” with the slogan “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day.”

“That really is the origin,” said I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who researches the role of physical activity in promoting health and preventing disease. “It was not a scientific study.”

Since then, 10,000 steps has become the default goal for fitness trackers, smartphone apps and even some corporate wellness programs whose financial rewards are based on the number of steps employees log each day.

But walking as few as 4,400 steps a day is beneficial, according to Dr. Lee, who has analyzed the relationship between step volume and mortality.

Her study, a collaboration with researchers at Harvard, the University of Tokyo, the University of Tennessee, the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute, examined 16,741 women who ranged in age from 62 to 101.

They wore hip-mounted accelerometers to track their movements for at least 10 hours a day over four to seven days between 2011 and 2015.

Among the group, walking approximately 4,400 steps a day was associated with a 41% reduction in mortality compared with walking 2,700 steps a day. Walking around 7,500 steps was associated with a 65% reduction.

“If you do get 10,000, you’re definitely going to get health benefits,” Dr. Lee said. “It’s not wrong, but it might be a harder goal for some people.”

Knowing that walking less is worthwhile could encourage people who find the higher target—the equivalent of around 5 miles—unattainable.

“If I had to put a number on it, I’d say try to get 2,000 steps more than you already do,” Dr. Lee said.

Americans typically walk around 4,800 steps a day; Japanese take 7,000 to 7,500; Australians and Swiss nationals take 9,000 to 10,000; and Old Order Amish cover 14,000 to 18,000.

The researchers said the results of their observational study, which was published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Medical Association, might not apply to people who are more, or less, active than the women they analyzed—a group that was primarily white, of a higher socioeconomic status than average and walked an average of 5,499 steps a day.

But a separate study published last month by JAMA based on a representative sample of U.S. adults age 40 and older found something similar: Walking more than 10,000 steps a day was beneficial, that study found, but so was walking less.

It used individuals who walked 4,000 steps a day as a reference point and compared them with people who were more active.

Taking 8,000 steps was associated with a 51% decreased mortality risk over the study period, according to Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, a research scientist at the National Cancer Institute and one of the study’s authors. Taking 12,000 steps a day was associated with a 65% reduction in risk.

Rather than aiming for a certain number of steps, the physical activity guidelines published by the Department of Health and Human Services recommend getting 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, each week or 75 minutes to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as jogging.

But the success of activity trackers suggests many people prefer to count steps.

In the first quarter of this year, 32.6 million wearable health and fitness devices valued at $4.6 billion were shipped world-wide, according to Ramon T. Llamas, research director for mobile devices at IDC, a market research firm based in Framingham, Mass.

Fitbit, a San Francisco company that specializes in activity trackers, accounted for 2.2 million of the units.

“I think there is a beauty in the 10,000-step goal,” said Shelten Yuen, Fitbit’s vice president of research. “It’s very easy to remember, and for most people it’s a target that is achievable and gets people to move more.”

If so, that’s a plus.

“I cannot emphasize more strongly how important physical activity is for health,” Dr. Lee said. “Even very modest amounts benefit your health. It’s not like you have to go out and run a marathon.”

Or walk 10,000 steps a day.

Article originally published in WSJ on June 12, 2020

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