Taking 10,000 Steps A Day – Is It Too Many or Too Few?

In today’s society we have an app for everything. You can download one to measure steps. Another helps set a schedule for newborns. You can use one for register rewards at hundreds of stores. There are even some to learn or translate foreign languages.

In this article I’m not talking about a specific app as much as I’m talking about the numbers measured by wearable fitness devices. They calculate all kinds of bodily functions like number of steps, breathing, heart rate, miles, calories burned, flights of stairs taken, and even REM sleep. Most of them will let you know with buzzing, bells, or firework displays when you’ve reached 10,000 steps within a 24-hour period of time. Many people strive to reach that goal daily and feel good about their fitness level if they hit it more days than not.

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Not long ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a paper based on a study conducted by the Women’s Health Study. It doesn’t fully answer the question, but does shed some light on it. It found that 4,400 steps per day were associated with lower mortality rates in women when compared to only 2,700 steps. That finding, by itself, isn’t particularly remarkable. Most people know that the more steps you take per day, the better your health.

But how did we determine the number of 10,000 as the appropriate number of daily steps? Regardless of the answer, many people benefit from it. But the number is a curiosity.

What you may not know is that the study suggested once you hit 7,500 steps a day, the benefit may level off. But not even that reveals much more information because the researchers only analyzed the most severe outcome that could result from taking fewer than 4400 steps a day – death. It did not take into consideration the other reasons people exercise such as enjoyment, better quality of life, pain reduction, etc. So, it’s reasonable to conclude other health and emotional benefits are achieved with increased steps.

Without minimizing the findings of this study, we can still ask if there is value in taking more than 7,500 steps. In the case of tracking devices, are 10,000 steps a day still helpful?

Yes. Even though 10,000 started out as an arbitrary number, there is still an advantage of reaching that goal. The equation is simple – the more steps you take each day, the less time you spend being sedentary. Inactivity contributes to metabolic disorders, cancer, and heart disease. If taking more steps every day can reduce these and other ailments, why not step out? It is an inexpensive form of exercise that doesn’t require a monthly gym fee, trainer, or special clothes.

The next question is about the tracker itself. Should you go to the expense? One of the advantages of a wearable fitness device is its external reward system. People look forward to the notification that they’ve hit the 10,000 step goal. One friend of mine enjoyed it so much that on Thanksgiving day he walked circles around my kitchen island until the fireworks display went off on his watch.

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This kind of external reward has the added benefit of not being food-related. Many people who embark on a diet will reward themselves with a “treat” if they hit a specific goal – even steps. An edible treat defeats the entire purpose of exercise because it adds far more calories than any number of steps burns off. But an electronic firework display is not only a type of bonus, it is a specific marker that you’ve achieved a quantifiable goal.

If you’ve been considering a walking exercise program but have been inactive, 10,000 steps a day may be too ambitious. On the other hand, it may represent a good starting point. When determining an initial goal, consider your weight, how your joints feel, and even the condition of your feet.* Regardless of the number you choose, it’s important to celebrate when you reach the goal. It becomes your definition of success and deserves recognition. Over time, if you want, you can increase the goal.

For people already engaged in a vigorous fitness routine, the 10,000 steps may be irrelevant. A good friend of mine participates in cardio-strength training three times a week with a trainer. She wears a tracker but only uses it to check her heart rate and number of calories burned. Regardless of the number of steps, which varies with her workout, if she elevates her heart rate for 40-60 minutes, she has achieved what she has established as her goal.

The JAMA study is not the final word on the steps/fitness topic. Measuring mortality against a daily number of steps isn’t much information about the benefits of increased activity in your life. You don’t need a tracker to know more exercise is better than less. If you use a tracker, remember you are more than a set of numbers. It’s tempting to view yourself that way when you start tracking foods, calories, carbs, steps, etc.

Adopting a healthier, active lifestyle isn’t about being perfect or hitting numbers. But if some tracking is helpful to you, then, by all means, do it. But if it makes you more stressed than not, let go of the tracking and make smarter choices in your lifestyle, including taking a daily walk around the block. You don’t need a tracker to do that.

If you are considering dieting along with exercise, you may be interested in reading this.

*Consult a doctor before beginning any exercise program.

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