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Most of us know that meeting recommended activity levels is important for managing our health and preventing disease, but some of these recommendations can feel arbitrary.

The idea of walking 10,000 steps per day became widely popular in the health industry's quest to promote physical activity in adults. Interestingly, this number doesn't originate from scientific data, and studies done since it was established show that hitting 10,000 steps a day doesn't have as straightforward a link to health as we might think.

Origin of 10,000 Steps

The idea of 10,000 steps a day being a healthy goal originated with a Japanese tech company back in 1965. The company, Yamasa Toki, developed a step-counter and gave it a name that translated to "10,000 steps meter" and marketed it with the slogan, "Let's walk 10,000 steps a day."

The slogan took off in Japan and soon spread worldwide, launching a fitness trend and countless research studies.

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Effectiveness

The idea of walking 10,000 steps a day as a way to improve health has limited supporting research.

There is little information available on how many steps are needed to meet clinical goals and affect mortality, but measuring the number of steps taken per day does have significant potential to improve health, and some studies have shown that it does indeed have benefits.

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Mood Benefits

One study looked at the effects of taking 10,000 steps per day on the mood and health of people with otherwise sedentary lifestyles. Participants in the study took less than 5,000 steps per day at baseline. After increasing activity to 10,000 steps a day or more over a 12-week period, participants had lower depression scores, indicating that an increase in the number of steps may have significant effects on mood.

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Weight Benefits

Research shows that people who meet a target of 10,000 steps a day are more likely to be of normal weight, while those taking less than 5,000 steps a day are more likely to be obese.

This study also demonstrated that people who walk less than 5,000 steps have a higher percentage of body fat and larger waist circumference than those who get in more steps a day.

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Problems with 10,000 Steps

Using 10,000 steps as a goal has a number of problems. The only way to accurately measure steps is to wear a pedometer or some other type of tracking device; the cost of these can be a barrier, and interest tends to wane over time. There is also a certain margin of error in using steps as a unit of measurement as everyone's steps are different depending on their stride, speed, and intensity.

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The More, the Better?

One study shows that taking more steps is not automatically better. This study followed more than 16,000 women in their 70s and compared the number of steps they took each day with their "all-cause mortality" — their likelihood of dying from any cause.

When researchers followed up with the women four years and three months after the study, the average number of steps for those who were still alive was only 5,500. Those who took only 4,000 steps a day were more likely to still be alive than those who took only 2,700. Overall, researchers determined that the more steps the women in the study took, the better, but only to a point. At 7,500 steps a day, the benefits plateaued. Taking 10,000 steps resulted in the same life expectancy as 7,500.

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Benefits of Walking

Walking has benefits in and of itself, even if people do not or cannot reach 10,000 steps a day. People with type 2 diabetes are likely to have a sedentary lifestyle, walking less than 5,000 steps a day, but are more likely to stick with pedometer-based walking programs than other types of exercises. One study looked at the effects of walking on people with type 2 diabetes over the course of a year when provided with a pedometer and encouraged by their physicians to increase activity. The results show that patients who received a pedometer and step count prescription from their physician had a net increase of 20 percent in step counts and improvements in both insulin sensitivity and A1C, a blood sugar test.

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What to Focus On

Rather than trying to take 10,000 steps a day, increasing the level of physical activity over your current amount may be a more attainable goal. Going from walking less than 5,000 steps a day to 7,000 steps a day is likely to result in health benefits, even though it is far below 10,000 steps.

For some people, 10,000 steps a day is an unrealistic and intimidating goal. Instead of getting discouraged, aiming to increase the number of steps every day and increasing the number over time feels much more attainable.

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Minutes Per Week

Rather than 10,000 steps, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week. Divide the weekly goal of 150 minutes into easily digestible pieces, like 30 minutes a day five days a week, or break it down even further to three 10-minute sessions.

People with sedentary lifestyles may not be able to maintain a brisk enough pace to qualify for moderate intensity. In these cases, upping the baseline step count by 2,000 steps a day is a good start.

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How to Increase Step Count

Increasing daily step counts does not have to be difficult. Listening to music while walking can help increase the pace and keep you motivated. To make walks more entertaining, volunteer to walk the dog or ask friends or family to join.

Schedule walks during your lunch break if you can, and try taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking at the back of the parking lot, as far from the entrance as possible. If you ride the bus, get off one stop before your destination. Little changes like these add up over time and help make slow and steady increases to your daily step count.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.