The Science of the 10,000-Steps Rule Is Not As Obvious As Fitbit Suggests

But it doesn't hurt to try it anyway.

Flickr / Tinh Te Photos

Take 10,000 steps a day. It’s one of those things you hear so many people repeat that it’s impossible to remember where you first heard this now-ubiquitous health advice. Buying a FitBit sets the default daily goal at 10,000 steps, but how can can that make sense when everyone’s body is different?

But just as you’ve probably been told to drink eight glasses of water a day no matter who you are or how big you are, the 10,000-steps rule is one of those allegedly one-size-fits-all pieces of health advice that over-simplifies health claims. For the most part, it’s good advice. More physical activity is, with very few exceptions, better for you. But of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

The history of the 10,000-steps rule reveals its origins in Japan — a nation with very different exercise and eating habits than most of the world.

Does taking 10k steps a day really make us healthier? Probably, especially if you're doing less than that already.

Flickr / quapan

Physiologists Catrine Tudor-Locke and David Bassett, Jr. wrote about its history in an article published in Sports Medicine in 2014, revealing that the 10,000-steps rule originated under an especially unique set of cultural and historical circumstances.

“It basically started around the Tokyo Olympics,” Tudor-Locke, a walking behavior researcher, told NY Magazine in 2015 in 2015. “A company over there created a man-po-kei, a pedometer. And man stands for ‘10,000,’ po stands for ‘step,’ and kei stands for ‘meter’ or ‘gauge,’” she explained. was literally meant to count to 10,000 steps. In Japan, she notes, notes, the number 10,000 is considered auspicious.

Theodore Bestor, a Harvard researcher of Japanese society and culture, told NY Magazine that it seemed likely that “the 10,000 steps goal was subsidiary to having a good-sounding name for marketing purposes.”

Your pedometer or fitness tracker might be giving you a goal that's lower than you should be aiming for.

Flickr / DebMomOf3

So, this origin story not only not only suggests that the 10,000-step rule isn’t based on much science but also indicates that it’s probably not really applicable to Americans in 2017 — or, at least, people who eat like Americans in 2017. Considering that Japan has one of the world’s lowest obesity rates — just 3.30 percent of Japanese citizens are obese — and the fact that the United States nearly tops that list, with 33.70 percent of citizens classified as obese, it’s safe to say that even if 10,000 steps is enough for Japanese people, comparatively husky Americans might need to walk a little more to make up for their caloric intakes.

Even though the 10,000-step rule might skirt some complexity of exercise science, telling people to walk more is generally great advice. Unfortunately, walking alone isn’t enough, at least for people with American levels of unhealthiness.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking)” each week. Take a walk around the block, and the pounds will just melt right off, right? Not so fast.

The CDC doesn’t stop there, recommending that those weekly 150 minutes of brisk walking you should be doing each week should be accompanied by “muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).”

Exercise can be pleasant, contrary to what your favorite comedians may suggest.

Flickr / mripp

The bottom line is, the 10,000-steps rule isn’t totally backed by science, but it will probably help you if you want to maintain your current health. In fact, if you haven’t been walking much or doing other exercises, 10,000 steps might help you out a lot. However, if you have an injury or you’re really out of shape, you might want to gradually increase your exercise levels from total sedentariness, perhaps by 1,000 steps per week.

But if you’re trying to do more than maintain your current level of health, like lose weight, then 10,000 might be a low goal. Try 12,000 — perhaps you’ll see effects like those observed in a 2013 study, where 355 participants who walked more than 10,000 steps a day decreased their blood pressure after six months. So yes, taking 10,000 steps a day is good — but a little more is probably better.

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