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The Skinny on 10,000 Steps Per Day

The Skinny on 10,000 Steps Per Day

Billy Pratt, BA, CPT, PAS, GIPS, CFMSP


So your significant other just gave you that Fitbit you wanted and you’re all excited to register it and get started!  The device sets a goal of walking 10,000 steps per day; and this seems intuitive because that’s what everyone else talks about right?  “Gotta get those 10,000 steps in!”  It also helps that the number 10,000 just seems to have some kind of aesthetic appeal – it’s a nice round number that just sounds smooth.  But do either of those reasons equate to real definable results? 

A 2016 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy followed 35 sedentary overweight individuals over the course of 12 weeks as they self-reported their steps.  Body mass index, waist circumference, bodyfat percentage, and lean body mass were recorded before and after the trial.  The results were reported as being significantly in favor of the increased activity, as BMI, WC, and BF% were all reported to be lower and psychological measures of anxiety, depression, and mood were improved.  This sounds like a vindication of the 10,000 step rule right?  Well, maybe.  It’s obvious that taking any group of previously sedentary individuals and getting them to move more will carry both physical and psychological benefits… this doesn’t necessarily reflect on how much movement is beneficial.  Would it have been better with 15,000 steps?  Worse with 8,000?  No one really seems to know.

After searching for more clarification in the research and not finding much, I came across an article in the Guardian (September 3rd, 2018) which mentioned a Japanese marketing company who, in the mid-1960s, advertised the world’s first “10,000 step meter”.  10,000 steps – a great marketing phrase (read: aesthetic).  The idea is sound:  take a populace who averages 5,000 steps per day and encourage them to double that.  It is inevitable that you will find benefits from increasing the overall activity level of a more sedentary population.  But that still does not answer the question I have about that number.  Where is the threshold of benefit?  And we still have not examined the issue of intensity (effort) in increasing steps, or the comparison of very sedentary individuals with less sedentary ones when studying this guideline.

Obviously there is much more room for researchers to step in and collect more data which can be used to examine the particulars of the 10,000 step guideline.  As of now, regardless of what conclusions the authors claim to have reached, we can only confidently submit that getting a sedentary group of people to move more carries measurable physical & psychological benefits.  What that threshold is and how much it can vary between people is something we have no information on.  So what is the skinny (pun intended) on the apparently arbitrary 10,000 step goal?

If you’re someone who can honestly rate yourself as one who lives a sedentary lifestyle, then making that 10,000 step per day goal is a worthy endeavor.  You are almost guaranteed to receive some benefit from it.  On the other hand if you’re someone who does not consider yourself sedentary (i.e. you move around a lot and participate in physical activities on a daily basis for sport, leisure, fitness, or work) then I wouldn’t worry too much about it.  In fact while there may be a current lack of good evidentiary support for that magical 10,000 number, there are a plethora of studies which provide very good evidence for the application of higher-intensity, shorter-duration activities but that is a topic for another time.  10,000 steps – useful for some, harmful to no one; if it makes you feel good do it.  But a little healthy skepticism when hearing that claim is perfectly okay 😊


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