Studies Show That The 10,000 Steps-A-Day Goal Is Built On Bad Science

Woman walking on treadmill.
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Popular culture has us thinking that 10,000 steps a day are the optimal number for staying healthy. This idea has spread through the media and been perpetuated by devices such as the Fitbit. However, research is finding that 10,000 daily steps is an arbitrary figure that has been based on poorly designed research studies, writes The Guardian.

The idea that 10,000 steps are an ideal daily objective began in Japan in the mid-60s. The Japanese marketing campaign was designed to capitalize on the Tokyo Olympics. The company Yamasa created the first wearable step counting device that was called manpo-kei, or the 10,000-step meter. However, this number was not based on any real evidence, reported Professor David Bassett, head of kinesiology, recreation, and sport studies at the University of Tennessee.

“There wasn’t really any evidence for it at the time. They just felt that was a number that was indicative of an active lifestyle and should be healthy.”

Although the World Health Organization, the American Heart Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services have all adopted the 10,000 steps as the daily activity recommendation, this number has been called into question and many research studies have been conducted in an attempt to find evidence for the claim.

Many studies that have already been conducted have been quite arbitrary, continues The Guardian. Most of them simply compare the health results of people who walk 10,000 steps a day with those who walk 3,000 or 5,000. Professor Catrine Tudor-Locke of the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring at the University of Massachusetts Amherst commented on the faultiness of these studies.

“This number keeps being reinforced because of the way research studies are designed. So, the study might find that 10,000 helps you lose more weight than 5,000 and then the media see it and report: ‘Yes, you should go with 10,000 steps,’ but that could be because the study has only tested two numbers. It didn’t test 8,000, for example, and it didn’t test 12,000.”

woman running
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There are now concerns that for those with pre-existing medical conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, the jump to 10,000 steps a day will actually cause more harm than good. In fact, some studies have shown that to combat the negative consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, it may only be necessary to take between 6,000 and 8,000 steps a day.

In an attempt to calculate exactly how many steps a person should aim for every day, scientists have equated it to the public health guidelines of 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise. They found that the minimum steps a person should take every day are somewhere around 7,500. However, more studies must be conducted on whether more than 10,000 steps may have long-term benefits.

The 10,000 steps-a-day goal doesn’t take into account the intensity of activity.

“More recently, scientists have started looking at cadence, which is the idea of step rate or frequency of stepping,” Tudor-Locke explained. “When intensity’s better, your heart is pounding a little faster, more blood goes through your body, things are crossing the cell wall that need to; all these things are happening quicker.”

Tudor-Locke has published her findings on how many steps are required per minute for exercise to be beneficial, concluding that people should shoot for a minimum of 100 steps.

“This is the kind of pace which you naturally ascend to when you’re doing purposeful walking. But this is just the beginning of this area of research: looking at how healthy people are not just by how many steps they’ve taken, but the rate at which they’ve done it.”