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The magic number: The notion of 10,000 steps to fitness is pure marketing, but it’s also a worthy goal

By today’s fitness standards, your journey starts with 10,000 steps a day.

That’s usually the default number set as a walking activity goal, whether your tracker is a Fitbit, Garmin, Apple Watch or smartphone.

So does that number hold any merit or is it just a nice, round number?

Turns out it traces back to an old Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometer called a manpo-kei, which translates as “10,000-step meter.”

But modern studies have shown the idea of walking 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day does offer health benefits, said Glen Duncan, a Washington State University professor. He’s chair of the department of nutrition and exercise physiology.

“It came from a Japanese pedometer company and Japanese walking clubs,” Duncan said. “It traces back all the way to the 1960s. I’m not so sure that number was totally random in Japan though. I think there was some evidence. There was something to that.”

Either way, the distance roughly is a good way to meet the current U.S. national guidelines that adults exercise moderately at least 30 minutes a day for five days a week, he said. Several national health organizations also suggest 150 minutes per week of moderate activity.

Regular walking is considered good exercise to lower risk for heart disease and diabetes. Those frequent walks also can help people control their diabetes, he said.

“The goal of 10,000 steps just gives someone a tangible number to achieve. In the U.S. and many Western countries, we don’t do nearly enough physical activity, so giving us a benchmark is a good thing. It’s a goal that has some health benefits.”

Quantity vs. quality

Some trackers are getting more sophisticated to measure heart rate and inclines, for example, but most are mainly counting the number of steps. They don’t measure whether those are taken in a moderate stroll around a store or by briskly walking with the dog.

“The one thing the 10,000 steps goal doesn’t give you is the quality of those steps,” Duncan said. “It gives you the quantity. It can’t really distinguish how vigorous those steps are. If the 10,000-step goal is on something simple like a pedometer, it won’t give you the quality piece.”

He doesn’t think that’s worth quibbling over, though, if it means fitness watches or trackers just help people remember to move several times a day. Too many U.S. residents are sedentary and sitting for too long has greater health detriments, several health studies have found.

“From purely a public health standpoint, I don’t care about the quality so much,” Duncan said. “I just want you to go out and do some activity. We just need to get people to move more, and then if we can get them to move more, then we can get them to work on the quality of the activity.”

Health benefits

A Preventive Health 2011 study found that an accumulation of 8,000 steps a day represents a reasonable goal for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity. More walking provides better health outcomes, the report said, and 10,000 steps is more in line with 40 to 47 minutes of activity.

Another 2004 study found that the higher 10,000-step goal wasn’t sustainable for some groups such as older adults or those with chronic disease. Meanwhile, it found that measure isn’t enough for children who need at least an hour of activity and exercise daily.

Fewer than 5,000 steps a day for an adult might be used as a “sedentary lifestyle index,” the report said.

A Fitbit article on the company’s website said although an initial Japanese marketing campaign to help sell pedometers initially set the bar, medical experts today agree on 10,000 steps as a healthy target.

The 10,000-step measure equates to roughly 5 miles, the company said. “The benefits are many, lower BMI, reduced waist size, increased energy, and less risk for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”

Tracker reminders

Perhaps the tracker pops up with a little reminder to get up from your desk, as another benefit.

Duncan knows people might forget or get too busy to take walking breaks, perhaps when they’re finishing a project on deadline. But it can help you to heed those messages to take just 120 steps.

“Maybe you need to take an activity break, go take a short walk whether it’s up and down the stairs or around the floor,” Duncan said. “It’s something to break up the deleterious consequences of just sitting all the time.”

What if it’s late at night and you’re 200 steps short of that 10,000? Don’t sweat it.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Duncan said. “It’s just a good guide. If you’re at 9,800 steps, don’t beat yourself up. There’s nothing wrong with 9,800 steps.”

That said, Duncan doesn’t track his own daily steps but rather works out intensively four or five times a week. But he also walks regularly – to the bus, to work and down the street with his dog, an original fitness tracker.

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