Your Health Checkup: Exposing the Myth of 10,000 Steps per Day

Do you really need to walk 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy? Dr. Zipes looks at the scientific evidence.

Finger with a painted nail resting on a wrist pedometer.

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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Without doubt, exercise is an important activity to help achieve and maintain better health. But how much is necessary? Current guidelines recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, a little more than 20 minutes per day. Can you do less and still benefit? Probably yes, but the benefits may be less.

We hear a lot about the need to walk 10,000 steps a day and the use of wearable technology to keep track of the number of steps taken. Since the average number of daily steps measured by smartphones is approximately 5,000 worldwide and 4,800 in the United States ,  one can ask whether we are jeopardizing our health by not walking more.

But what is the source of the 10,000-step recommendation, and how valid is it?

It turns out that the advice likely derives from the trade name of a Japanese pedometer sold in 1965 by the Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company called Manpo-kei, which translates in Japanese to “10,000 steps meter.” No scientific evidence exists to support walking 10,000 steps daily. Further, while walking is a basic activity of locomotion, people of different ages, sex, and fitness status walk at different speeds and on different terrains, one can question whether “one size fits all.” If not, is the recommendation bunk and should we ignore it? Because I walked only 5,000 steps today, am I at risk?

To answer that question researchers set out to determine how many steps per day were associated with lower mortality and whether the intensity of the steps impacted the outcome. In a cohort study of almost 17,000 older women (mean age 72 years), they measured steps/day over seven days using an accelerometer worn on the hip.

During a follow-up of 4.3 years, they found that women who averaged approximately 4,400 steps/day had a 41 percent lower mortality rate compared with the least active women who took approximately 2,700 steps/day. Mortality rates continued to decrease as more steps per day were taken and finally leveled off at approximately 7,500 steps/day. The intensity of the steps taken was not clearly related to a reduced mortality after accounting for the total steps/day.

Since the average walker takes between 2,000 and 2,500 steps per mile, translated into miles, 4,400 steps would be around two miles per day, and 7,500 steps would be at least three miles per day.

Whether you walk, lift weights, swim, or whatever, exercising enables you to take control of your own health and well-being, reduce stress, maintain mental acuity and productivity, and decrease the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer. To begin, pick an activity you enjoy doing and will likely continue. If you are out of shape, start small, maybe ten minutes a day or a quarter of a mile walk. Exercise with a friend (keep your distance and wear a mask) if you need motivation and keep a written record to remind you what you’ve accomplished.

In addition to being enjoyable, the rewards of exercising are great. Just get out and do it.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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