Runner tying shoe lace

10,000 steps a day – How effective really is it?

It’s often recommended that we aim for 10,000 steps a day, but where did this magic number come from?

The assumption is that this number is rooted in science, but the 10k steps a day approach actually originated from a marketing campaign in the 1960s. A Japanese company called Yamasa Clock, hoping to capitalise on the buzz generated by the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, mass-produced a pedometer, called the Manpo-kei which means ‘10,000 steps meter.’ It’s likely they chose this name because the Japanese character for 10,000 resembles a person walking or running. The campaign was hugely successful and the number stuck.

Now let’s dive into the research. A 2019 study by Dr. Lee found that women in their 70s who managed just 4,400 steps a day reduced their risk of premature death by about 40%, compared to women completing 2,700 or fewer steps a day. The risk of early death continued to drop among women walking more than 5,000 steps a day, but this levelled out at around 7,500 steps. Similarly, a 2020 study of both men and women found that 10,000 steps did not necessarily equate to increased lifespan. The study of 5,000 participants found those who completed around 8,000 steps a day were half as likely to die prematurely than those who totalled 4,000 steps a day. 

Upping our step count by just a few thousand extra a day may be enough to provide health benefits. The UK Chief Medical Officers’ Guidelines recommend that adults do 150 minutes of moderate to intense activity a week. Dr. Lee commented that 150 minutes, translated into step count, works out at just over 16,000 steps a week of exercise for most people, or around 2,000 to 3,000 steps most days. Say we take 5,000 steps a day through daily activities such as housework, commuting or shopping, adding the extra two to three thousand steps would take us to 7,000 or 8,000 steps a day, rather than 10,000.

While the 10,000 steps a day approach offers us a number to aim for, it can be discouraging when we don’t achieve it, and for some people it just isn’t realistic. A 2017 study on British teenagers, found that to begin with 13 and 14-year-olds enjoyed the novelty of the target, however they soon found it was difficult to maintain and complained that it wasn’t a fair number to aim for.

A better approach is to simply aim to move more, or to find a number that is challenging but realistic for your lifestyle. 

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