Busting the Myth of 10,000 Steps

As personal activity trackers such as the Fitbit rise in popularity, so too has the recommendation to strive for 10,000 steps each day. While being physically active on a regular basis is medically sound health advice, is there evidence to show that the 10,000-steps goal offers actual health merits? Where did that target of 10,000 come from?

Our preference to use round numbers such as 10, 50 and 100 originates with humans evolving to have 10 fingers. We use these round numbers because they are so simple to understand. The base-10 system offers us an easy way to mark milestones or set goals: think of major anniversaries or weight-loss targets.

The fitness goal of taking 10,000 steps each day traces back to the mid-1960s, when marketers of a Japanese pedometer gave it a name that translates to “the 10,000-step meter,” a catchy phrase and memorable round number. So memorable, in fact, that many fitness trackers today have 10,000 steps set as the device default target.

Researchers are now looking into whether this guideline has any scientific basis, and if it might be less beneficial than we think—or even harmful. Some have found that setting the same goal of 10,000 steps for everyone can actually discourage those who may benefit the most from simply being active, notably those who face barriers to walking safely. Other studies show that use of fitness tracker devices frequently tapers off with time.

If being physically active is the actual goal, how can you meet that goal without relying on a particular number or device? Recent revised recommendations from both the American Heart Association and Heart and Stroke in Canada reflect the value of short bursts of activity.

The latest Canadian recommendations are for adults to accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. (That means being active enough that you feel a little short of breath and it’s somewhat difficult to chat with somebody next to you.)

These recommendations also note that this activity can be accumulated in bursts of just 10 minutes or more. If you can’t fit a 40-minute cardio class into your schedule or budget, for example, you can still reach these updated recommendations without needing to track your steps.

Need some suggestions to fill a few minutes at a time?

What’s especially encouraging with these new guidelines is that simply increasing the amount of activity you get in a day can be more beneficial than trying to reach a hard target like 10,000 steps.

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