Surprise! Having To Walk 10,000 Steps A Day Is A Low-key Myth

Photographed by Serena Brown.
For as long as I can remember, 10,000 steps has been the gold standard of walking — at least, walking that’s tracked. It’s what we’re meant to aspire to achieve each and every day in order to attain an (alleged) optimal level of health. It’s become the default goal in the majority of our step trackers and the (sometimes unreachable) finish line to our days. And while we’ve all collectively decided that 10,000 is the ideal daily number to hit, where did it even come from? Who decided this was the number we needed to strive towards? More importantly, what if it’s a myth entirely?
As it turns out, the thought that we need to take 10,000 steps — or walk around five miles — a day was an accident. It came from the need to market a product. Dr I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and researcher of physical activity, tells Refinery29 that in the 1960s, a Japanese company created a pedometer called “Manpo-keithat translates to “10,000 steps meter.” “10,000 steps is a really catchy number,” she says. And so, it caught on. “It pretty much was in use without people questioning too much about it,” she says.
Eventually, 10,000 became the global baseline for many step counters and pedometers from Fitbits to Apple Watches, leading consumers to believe that the very number was the end-all-be-all for walking goals. And while we’ve been following this recommendation for decades now (or, at least, just acknowledging it) Dr Lee says it’s not all that useful as a baseline for being healthy.
A 2021 study published in JAMA Network Open followed 2,110 adults for over 10 years, tracking their step counts along the way. The researchers found that those who took at least 7,000 steps a day — not 10,000 — had a lower risk of premature death than those who didn’t. In 2019, Dr. Lee and her colleagues published a study in JAMA Internal Medicine that found similar results. They also found that after 7,500 steps, the benefits of walking tend to taper off depending on the person, although their research mainly focused on older women ages 62 to 101. For those that are younger, Dr. Lee says a higher step count is probably better.
There is a psychological component to this all, too. Some people may look at 10,000 as a daunting number, which can be discouraging. Some may become more obsessive and have anxious thoughts if they’re not hitting that number during their daily movement. It’s possible to become fixated on hitting numbers and metrics, which can, overall, hurt your health rather than help it.
“I think number targets are fantastic for some people and awful for others, whether it’s numbers on a scale or steps on a pedometer,” says Jill Grimes, MD, author of The Ultimate College Student Handbook. She adds that in our pursuit of being healthier, we need to focus on what’s really motivating us to move. “For young adults, that might be feeling fit enough to enjoy a first ski trip or simply to be able to walk across campus without feeling exhausted,” says Dr. Grimes. “Focusing on the why is key.”
The good news, Dr. Lee says, is that all steps count — whether there’s 10,000 of them or 7,000 of them or 2,000. If 10,000 seems like a far off number for you to hit, Dr. Lee says a reasonable target would be to add 2,000 more steps to your daily average. And, for those who aren’t physically able to walk as much, doing daily strength exercises with body weight or added weights is also a good idea.
When in doubt, any kind of movement is better than none at all — and while 10,000 gives us a concrete goal to aspire to, it’s nothing to sweat over.
This article contains general information, and should not be construed as medical advice. Each individual's circumstances are different and should be discussed with a medical practitioner.

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