"Every step we make can be filled with peace, joy and serenity." Thich Nhat Hanh
How many steps a day should we aim for to stay reasonably fit and healthy? In our goal-oriented world, where everything needs to be measured with a high level of precision, the ultimate number of steps appears to be 10,000, or, at least, that’s what many of us believe to be the truth. So, what makes the number so magical? Let's look at the history.
The 10,000 steps recommendation was first introduced in 1960s Japan right before the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. A Japanese company introduced a man-po-kei, a simple pedometer which in direct translation means 10,000 (man), step (po) and meter (kei), as a Japanese doctor Yoshiro Hatano estimated that this should be enough to burn 20% of a daily calories intake. According to contemporary Japanese scientists, the "10,000 steps" didn’t refer to a daily health target at all. Rather, it was used as a marketing slogan. As simple as that.
Needless to say that life in 1960s Japan widely differed from our today’s reality. The Japanese people consumed fewer calories, less processed animal fat, and not everyone was using a car. When we look at the daily calorie intake per capita, the Japanese people consumed 2,600 calories a day while the average for the UK is now 3,400 and for the US almost 3,800. The difference is about 1,000 calories a day which translate into 20,000 steps for an average person. Although the numbers may vary depending on individual factors, the fact remains that the lifestyle in 1960s Japan was very different to the lifestyle we are having now.
To keep it simple is a great motto, and there’s nothing wrong with targeting 10,000 steps a day, but there is no such thing as one size fits all approach and what works for some people, may not work for others.
Let’s look at the people who live the most sedentary lifestyle. Those who are considered inactive, typically walk about 3,000 steps a day just by moving around the house or work.
A recently published large European study looked at how different activity levels may be associated with mortality rates. The researchers concluded that people moderately inactive had 30% reduced mortality whereas those inactive showed 20% reduction. The study has proven that participants who started moving from 2,500 to 5,000 steps a day gained the major health benefits.
For people who are inactive or live with chronic illnesses, to be able to start moving at all is a huge success, and they are not going to benefit from the 10,000 steps recommendations. They may benefit, however, from “less than 5,000 step a day” recommendations that could make their goal more realistic and encouraging.
Interestingly, breaking the inactive times of a day when we sit or stand is beneficial even for athletes or people who exercise on a regular basis. An Australian study has shown that walking about five miles (or 10,000 steps) can lower the blood sugar level, LDL cholesterol level, body mass index, blood pressure, the risk of stroke, depression and even dementia. Meeting the goal has also improved brain function and the level of physical fitness by 2%.
One study was looking at a group of men who were already walking 10,000 steps asking them to reduce the number of steps by 1,250 to see what difference that may make to their metabolism. It turned out that after two weeks both their sugar and lipid metabolism significantly decreased, and the body fat began to redistribute to their midsections.
The current recommendations set by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests taking between 7,000 and 8,000 steps a day. Considering that the average adult takes about 5,900 steps daily, we should constantly be increasing our limits by adding extra steps each week.
After more than half a century since man-po-kei was first introduced, the 10,000 step marketing slogan is still being used, as like diamonds, great slogans last forever. Although the 10,000 is not a magic number, and it’s not going to get us in shape on its own, it is an important reference point to measure our progress wherever we are on the scale.
Focusing on progress and increasing our daily activities consistently, may not be an easy strategy to follow, but it can give a unique insight on what level of activity is right for us.
Adding any level of activity brings immediate benefits, so if you stroll start walking, if you walk start hiking, if you hike, start jogging, but whatever you do, keep making progress. A day full of slow, steady, simple physical activities like walking can make a big difference in our health in the long run.