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All fitness exercise The lowdown on 10,000 steps a day

The lowdown on 10,000 steps a day

Happy woman smiling over her shoulder and walking in the park

Dr. Nikki Stamp


18 November 2021


3 min read

Every hour, my smartwatch beeps at me to remind me to get up and walk around. Some days when I’m studying or working at my computer, it gets easy to forget to keep moving and having a target can be really helpful.

 Many of us would have heard of the importance of getting 10,000 steps a day. In recent times, you may have also seen people telling you that this target is nothing more than nonsense, made up by a clever marketing team. 

So which is it – can you safely throw caution to the wind and forget about step counts or should you be doing laps of your office every hour?

The origin of 10,000 steps

We think that the origin of clocking up 10,000 steps every day comes from Japan, back in 1965, when a device called Manpo-kei was sold. It was a pedometer – an instrument designed to measure how many steps you take – and its name literally translates to “10,000 steps meter”. 

It’s likely that this number was entirely arbitrary. Nobody has been able to ascertain that this number was based on any kind of science, especially since even now, the science around how many steps we need to take in a day is up for debate. Because of this, some people have claimed that there is no actual need to follow a number randomly picked when naming a device.

Either way, choosing a step count has a number of advantages as it is easily understood by everyone and is easily measured, especially since lots of us have wearables like smartwatches or phones that count this for us.

Woman sitting at her desk working and stretching out her sore lower back

The more sedentary we are, the higher our risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes or obesity. Not too mention aches and pains from prolonged sitting.

Is sitting really bad for you?

One of the things we want to try and combat with step counts is being too sedentary. Modern life has made it pretty easy to spend more and more time doing less and less – we can order food, change the TV, work, get to where we’re going and interact with the world, all without standing up or walking much at all. 

This is called ‘sedentary behaviour’ and while it might feel good to chill out on the couch with Netflix and Uber Eats, or just do our jobs in a comfy chair, research has shown that being too sedentary can negatively impact our health. In fact, the more sedentary we are, the higher our risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes or obesity. 

One way we can reduce this risk is to decrease our sedentary time, even if we’re working out, limiting the time we’re spending sitting down is important for our health. 

Do I have to walk 10,000 steps?

Given that number of steps seems to have been plucked out of thin air, what’s the point of chasing a daily step count?

Since researchers realised that we didn’t exactly know how many steps we should do and if there was a magic number, recent years have seen more and more science grow in this area.

woman walking in the park listening to music and looking at her phone

If it works for you, count your steps – your watch, fitness tracker or phone can easily keep tabs of how far you’re walking.

One study looked at thousands of older women and found that even 4,400 steps per day were associated with a lower risk of dying than older women taking just 2,700 steps. However, we need to take this with a grain of salt. Given this was just in older women, it may mean that if we’re younger or even male, we still may need to walk more for benefits.

Other studies though have shown that although 10,000 might be an arbitrary target, the more steps people take, the healthier they’re likely to be. However, even if you don’t get to the magic 10,000 mark, science has shown us that you can still get the health benefits from walking. This is a really common finding when we look at physical activity and moderate-intensity to high-intensity exercise for our health.

Other research has shown us that just by keeping track of our step counts, we’re more likely to be active with all the benefits that this brings. 

Ultimately, the science isn’t there yet to give us a magic number, but 10,000 steps is a really great target. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore having a step count target. 

In fact, given that walking is a cheap, easy and effective way to get moving and stop sitting, measuring our steps is a great way to monitor daily activity and motivate our health. 

If you get to 10,000 then that’s great. And if you don’t, something is always better than nothing and tomorrow is a new day to take a few more.

Young woman walking to work listening to music

Whether you’re going to work or to the shops, ditch the car and up your steps by walking some or all of the way.

Ways to take extra steps

  • If it works for you, count your steps – your watch, fitness tracker or phone can easily keep tabs of how far you’re walking and can be motivating. If keeping an eye on your step counts keeps you motivated and enjoy watching your progress, keep at it. 
  • Get up every hour – if you’re sitting down, whether it be to work or to chill in the evening, get up and walk around at regular intervals. It might mean every hour at work, you have a little lap of the office or after every episode you’ve binged on Netflix, you walk around your house. Every little bit matters.
  • Get in your incidental exercise – whether you’re going to work or to the shops, ditch the car or the closest bus stop and walk some or all of the way. You can clock up to 4,000 steps a day just by making this simple tweak to your routine.
  • Start small - If you're new to exercise or getting back into the swing of things, try brisk walking to your first 3,000 steps.

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Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board November 2021

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