It’s amazing how certain terms and sayings seem to stick forever: “You need to walk 10,000 steps per day to achieve health benefits” is something I am sure you are all aware of, and perhaps been striving to achieve for years. Many of you will have been monitoring your daily steps with this goal in mind (and it’s easy these days because every device hanging off us seems to track our every step). One of the best things with the “10,000 step rule” is that it’s not easy to achieve, and it takes a concerted effort to reach that daily target. So at the very least it motivates us to do more than we naturally would with our standard day to day activities.

But where does the 10,000 step figure come from, and does it actually have any validity in relation to its effect on our health? Amazingly, it seems our fixation on 10,000 steps has come from a 1960s marketing campaign by a Japanese company for a new pedometer, named Manpo-Kei (Manpo means 10,000 steps in Japanese). Incredibly, from a marketing campaign based on the name of a pedometer, we have a rule that still exists some 50-60 years later!
A couple of recent studies, one out of Sydney University and the other out of Harvard Medical School, appear to show that the target mark should be closer to 7500.

Let’s take the evidence from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkin Centre. Their research showed that if a person walks 7500 steps a day (about an hour or so of cumulative walking, or 5-6km), then the chance of that person dying from any cause in the next two years was reduced by 40 per cent. This risk continued to reduce the more the person walked, with around 11,000 steps per day (the average maximum people in the study walked) reducing the risk of dying in the following few years by 50%! Keep in mind also that this step target is all your steps, not just designated walks – incidental walking, gardening, shopping, chasing kids, whatever!
So this begs the question – if the risk reduction continued from 40% (at 7500 steps) to 50% (at 11,000 steps), why isn’t 11,000 steps per day the new goal? Like so many things in life, it is not a linear equation we are looking at:

  • For every 1000 steps a day you take up to 7500 steps, there is a sharp spike in risk reduction. There was an average 8.5% reduction in risk of dying for every 1000 steps up to that 7500 step mark.
  • After 7500 steps, the average risk reduction dropped to 2 per cent for every additional 1000 steps in that day.
  • So 7500 was shown to be the ‘turning point’ where the linear shape of the relationship changed.”
    Now that we have established a potentially new “high target” of 7500 steps per day, is there a “minimum target”? Recent research at the University of Texas indicates that if you’re walking fewer than 5,000 steps a day, your body is less able to metabolise (break down) fat the following day. A build up of fat in the body can increase a person’s likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. If we add the recent studies together, it would seem that there is a “sweet spot” between 5000 and 7500 steps per day, ideally closer to the 7500 mark!
    Please note that I am not saying that for all of you that are currently doing 10,000 steps per day that you need to drop it to 7500 – not at all! Here are the messages I am trying to convey:
  • If we are going to have a health target then ideally we want to ensure there is some medical evidence/research behind it. Just because we’ve always done 10,000 steps per day doesn’t make it right.
  • I find that many people can be put off by a target like 10,000 steps because it isn’t easy to achieve. For many of us, if the rule or the target seems hard and fast (eg you must walk 10,000 steps per day to achieve health benefit) then it is so easy to just not bother at all because the end result is insurmountable. The latest research shows us that you can do less than 10,000 steps and still get benefit – in fact for every 1000 steps you do you are getting benefit. So don’t despair if you can’t reach 10,000, try and get 5,000 if you can and work up from there.
  • So many people are time poor and trying to achieve this 10,000 step target may take all the spare time in your day. The World Health Organization recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity). Walking is a brilliant way to achieve a large chunk of this goal, but I don’t believe it should be the only thing we should be doing. By knowing that 7500 steps is achieving benefit, maybe it frees up a fraction of extra time to do some resistance work, some strength exercises, some swimming, some riding. Not only does the 10,000 steps per day rule take a lot of time, it also tends to confine us to one form of exercise. Use some extra time to do a different form of exercise.
    In summary:
  • If you are one of these people that can easily achieve 10,000 steps per day AND fit in other forms of exercise, keep up the great work.
  • If you are striving hard to achieve 10,000 steps per day and it’s the only form of physical exercise you do, consider dropping your target to 7500 and substituting that extra time with a different form of exercise (strength is key)!
  • If you’re struggling to achieve 7500 steps per day, see if you can achieve that lower threshold of 5000 steps as many days as you can!

Anthony Lance
SSPC Physiotherapist

References available on request