Registering 10,000 steps a day with a pedometer is a fine goal that deserves celebration, but far from being a doctor-recommended dose of activity, it’s actually a complete myth.
The good news is that for most people whose physical activity is limited to walking, one need only accumulate between 4,500 and 7,000 steps a day to reduce, sometimes dramatically, their chance of dying young.
Most governments, and we can start with the CDC at home, recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. The measurement is made with a unit of time and not of repetitions, which has its limits, as some studies show number of steps correlates more strongly with lower disease risk than did time spent walking.
According to Gretchen Reynolds writing for the New York Times, the goal of accumulating 10,000 steps in a day for fitness’ sake is actually based on a fad invented by a Tokyo watchmaker in the wake of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when more and more people in the city became interested in health and fitness.
Like a harmless version of the other falsehoods in eastern medicinal practices (rhino horn tea anyone?) the idea that somehow 10,000 steps was the threshold for some exceptional therapeutic results spread across the globe.
In reality 10,000 steps is almost 5 miles, a lot more than is necessary for lowering your disease risk. Reynolds points to a 2019 study that found woman in their 70s who managed just 4,500 steps a day lowered their risk for premature death of any cause by 40%, compared to those who walked just 2,700 steps or less.
In a Japanese study cohort in 2020, it was found that among 4,840 adults aged 40 and up, walking 8,000 steps per day was enough to reduce risk of premature death by 49%.
However the critical detail is that between 4,000 to 8,000 steps, the benefit was immense, but between 8,000 and 12,000, the benefit diminished, suggesting there is fast-approaching upper limit of how much benefit the mere act of walking will confer.
It’s actually a good thing, probably, to suggest not trying to walk 10,000 steps, but rather to walk between 6,000 to 8,000 steps, and use the time one saved to do other physical activities of equal importance such as weight training or stretching—both key factors in preventing various pathologies of morbidity like muscle and bone-density loss, or the loss in flexibility.