Why you might not actually need to walk 10,000 steps a day

With little else to occupy ourselves during lockdown, many of us have turned to walking to fill those long hours on a Sunday afternoon or after a day of working from home. There’s no denying there are many physical and mental benefits to walking, but do we really need to aim for 10,000 steps every day?

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This number has been touted as the holy grail of step counts, promising vastly improved health and fitness levels if achieved every day. Even if you’re not an avid walker, most people have heard of this and anyone who owns a step tracker such as a Fitbit is supremely aware of the elusive step goal – that rush of dopamine when it buzzes as you take your 10,000th step of the day is hard to deny.

While it’s never bad to work on your fitness, get out for some fresh air or walk instead of drive to places, you might be surprised to know that the idea that exactly 10,000 steps a day automatically improves health and fitness isn’t based on science at all.

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The number actually comes from the name of a Japanese pedometer sold in 1965 – it was called Mainpokei, which translates to ‘ten thousand step meter’.

‘The Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a man walking, that’s why they chose it,’ explains I-Min Lee, a medical professor and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Medicine. ‘It wasn’t rooted in a scientific study.’

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So if that number was simply plucked from the air over 50 years ago, how many steps do we need to take per day to improve our health? The good news is, the number does exist and it’s lower than what we’ve previously been told. 7,500 is actually the number of steps we should be aiming for to see significant health benefits – after that, the health benefits associated with walking significantly taper off.

Two new studies (which have a combined participant total of more than 20,000 Americans) have found that up to 7,500 steps, the health benefits steadily improve, while those extra 2,500 steps to reach the elusive 10,000 are nowhere near as beneficial.

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‘The more you do the more benefit you get, but the curve tapers off at 7,500 steps,’ wrote Lee, who is the lead author of one of the new studies. ‘Women that did more than 7,500 didn’t get any extra benefit.’

So there we have it – walk for hours if you so wish, but know that 10,000 steps isn’t necessarily the bar you should be aiming for if optimum health is your goal.