Why It’s Finally Time To Stop Obsessing Over Counting Steps For Health
We’ve become obsessed with counting steps, but we should probably stop.
We weren’t always this obsessed with counting steps, tracking sleep, and measuring heart rate.
When I was in high school in the late 2000s, one of the most popular PE classes was “walking.” Each class, after we were given pedometers, we headed to the back of the track, where we promptly sat and chatted the class period away. When class ended, we shook the extremely low-tech, clip-on gadgets we had been given to rack up a few thousand “steps” before turning them in.
My public school’s low-rent step trackers weren’t all that different from what’s often considered to be the first popular pedometer. While step counters existed at other times in history, among the pedometers most commonly considered the “first” is the Manpo-kei, which was made in 1965 by the Japanese clock company Yamasa Clock. Over the next 50 years or so, the fashion for tracking your step count ebbed and flowed in the United States and elsewhere, but when Fitbit launched its first cute, trendy, and sleek pedometer in 2009, the tide turned: Stepcount mattered, FitBit seemed to say, and it mattered a lot.
Today, most of us wear or carry pedometers everywhere we go, every day of our lives, often in the form of apps on our smartwatches or smartphones. But as ubiquitous as pedometers are, a growing mountain of evidence suggests tracking steps isn’t the key to health. In fact, there may be better ways to gauge your well-being — including not tracking anything at all.
When the Manpo-kei debuted in Japan, a marketing campaign came along with it. According to numerous sources, including a 2019 study in JAMA, the gadget was named Manpo-kei because, in Japanese, it translates to “10,000 steps meter.” But the idea of 10,000 steps as an “ideal” wasn’t exactly based in science. Rather, the Japanese character for “10,000” resembles a person walking — so it’s commonly thought, though hard to prove definitively, that the seeming similarity is the humble origin story of a now much-vaunted fitness target.
Flash-forward to 2009, and Fitbit releases its first tracker. The company sets the default setting for number of steps the user should take at 10,000. The popularity of the Fitbit triggered a craze of its own as users tried to hit the 10,000-step benchmark, turning wellness into a competitive sport. In 2020, Fitbit founder James Park recalls in a story for Fortune magazine that “my cofounder, Eric Friedman, and I were inspired by the prospect of using sensor technology, like that on a Nintendo Wii, to gamify fitness and make getting healthy fun and achievable.”
The irrationality of the competitive walking fad is perhaps best summarized in David Sedaris’ 2014 commentary in The New Yorker: “I look back on the days I averaged only thirty thousand steps, and think, Honestly, how lazy can you get? When I hit thirty-five thousand steps a day, Fitbit sent me an e-badge, and then one for forty thousand and forty-five thousand. Now I’m up to sixty thousand, which is twenty-five and a half miles.”
Today, our phones’ and watches’ pedometers afford us the luxury of setting our own step goals, but the 10,000 steps-or-bust mentality is hard to shake. A look at the science could help: To date, there have been no scientific studies that have found 10,000 steps a day to be particularly beneficial for human health or longevity. In fact, the studies that have investigated the connection between daily steps and overall mortality suggest you need to take far fewer than 10,000 steps to benefit your health.
In the 2019 JAMA study, for instance, researchers studied women in their 70s and found that those who took just 4,400 steps a day reduced their overall mortality by 40 percent when compared to women who took about half that (2,700 steps) or less. Further, any additional benefits stemming from the extra steps stopped at 7,500 steps a day, not 10,000.
A separate meta-analysis published in 2022 in The Lancet also found the benefits steps provide for reduced overall mortality “can occur at levels less than the popular reference value of 10,000 steps a day.” This was especially true for older adults. But even for young people, the benefits associated with steps started to cap at around 8,000 steps.
Further, as the 2019 study in JAMA points out, steps aren’t all created equal. Racking up 10,000 steps, jogging, or running has a different effect on the body compared to 10,000 steps walking slowly or even briskly.
The Fitbit helped to make westerners obsessed with gamify-ing their health, but it wasn’t the last nor the most versatile: Most consumers expect health trackers today to count steps and measure a cornucopia of other values, like our heart rate, our sleep, our oxygen saturation, ovulation. Some even provide advice on how much strain our body is under at any given time.
Trackers are becoming less obtrusive, too. The Oura ring, designed to look like an average piece of jewelry, collects about the same amount of health data as the average smartwatch. The WHOOP band, which is geared toward athletes, doesn’t even make room for a display screen. The company claims the band tracks heart-rate variability and sleep and then attempts to measure a user’s daily strain based on these metrics.
But do any of these trackers actually improve your health or even just boost athletic performance? The evidence is mixed. Some studies suggest there isn’t any added benefit to using a fitness tracker, while other studies have found that a tracker improves users’ motivation to exercise. These studies find that people who use the devices do end up taking more steps or sticking to their fitness routines. But there are no robust data to suggest that tracking your sleep or heart rate improves overall health. In fact, tracking your sleep can sometimes make it worse.
Perhaps, the common thread in all these studies is how motivated you are to use the device — it’s hard to pick apart how large a role the device itself is playing in this motivation.
Impulses aside, there could be better ways to measure health on the horizon. Companies like InsideTracker are attempting to make blood tests more personalized by identifying an “optimized zone” on measured parameters like Vitamin D levels, iron, B12, and other blood metrics. Unlike blood tests done at a doctor’s office, which give values on a scale of normal to abnormal, aiming to measure within these “optimized zones” is theorized to improve athletic performance and overall health. Inside Tracker also gives dietary advice to boost levels of vitamins or nutrients you are deficient in.
InsideTracker and companies like it signal a shift toward personalized health and medicine, though perhaps one based more on science than taking 10,000 steps in a day. The crux of all these devices remains the same: If your vitamin D is low, you need to consistently take your supplements. If moving 4,400 steps a day decreases overall mortality, you need to walk that much each day. Unfortunately, gaming the system — say, by shaking your fitness tracker before you head to math — never works.
THE FUTURE OF YOU explores the tantalizing advancements in personal health, from a future without periods to computers in our brains. Read the rest of the stories here.