If you’re struggling to reach 10,000 steps a day, here’s some good news: The latest science suggests fewer daily steps may be the sweet spot for many of us, depending on our age, fitness and health goals.
There is nothing magical or evidence-based about 10,000 steps a day. So feel free to let go of that goal.
The notion to take 10,000 daily steps stems from a marketing ploy: As the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics approached, a Japanese researcher decided to nudge his nation to be more active by offering pedometers with a name that loosely translated as “10,000-step meter.” (The Japanese character for the number 10,000 looks a little like a person walking.)
More recently, scientists have come up with evidence-based recommendations about step-count goals. I recently spoke with some of the world’s leading experts on the science of step counting. Here’s their advice.
1. Your step count goal may be lower than you think
In the past few years, multiple large-scale studies have stepped up, looking closely into how many steps we probably need for our health and longevity. In the largest, published last year in the Lancet Public Health, dozens of global researchers pooled data from 15 earlier step-count studies, some unpublished, covering 47,471 adults of all ages, and compared their typical daily step counts to their longevity.
The sweet spot for step counts was not 10,000 or more. In general, the pooled data showed that for men and women younger than age 60, the greatest relative reductions in the risk of dying prematurely came with step counts of between about 8,000 and 10,000 per day.
For people older than age 60, the threshold was a little lower. For them, the sweet spot in terms of reduced mortality risk came at between 6,000 and 8,000 steps a day.
Walking more than 10,000 steps a day wasn’t bad for people - it didn’t increase the risk of dying - but also didn’t add much, in terms of reducing mortality risks.
The benefits also weren’t confined to longevity. In other studies, step counts of at least 8,000 a day for adults substantially lowered risks for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, depression, many types of cancer and even sleep apnea, said Janet Fulton, the chief of the Physical Activity and Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2. Even a small increase in daily steps is good for you
Not managing 8,000 steps a day at the moment? Or 6,000? Or even 5,000? You’re not alone. Even before the pandemic, most Americans were averaging fewer than 6,000 steps a day. And covid-19 seems to have reduced many people’s daily step counts by 10 percent or more, according to some recent research, with daily activity levels only slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels.
How do you begin to increase your step counts? Even very small increases in daily steps are good for you.
“I suggest starting with an increase of about 500 to 1,000 steps per day,” said Ulf Ekelund, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences who studies physical activity and was one of the co-authors of the Lancet step-count study.
Other researchers agree.
“We currently consider 500 steps a day as the minimum target for increased activity in inactive individuals,” said Thomas Yates, a professor of physical activity, sedentary behavior and health at the University of Leicester in England.
Every week or two, try accumulating another 500 or 1,000 steps, Ekelund said, until you reach at least 8,000 a day, or 6,000 if you’re past age 60.
3. You don’t need an expensive step counter
“Phones or watches are reasonably accurate,” said I-Min Lee, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who studies physical activity.
But not everyone owns a watch or similar activity tracker, Fulton said, while “almost everyone has a smartphone now.” And almost every smartphone, Apple or Android, contains an accelerometer, which is a movement tracker, that can tell you how many steps you take, Fulton said.
These devices are not as accurate as the research-grade accelerometers used in scientific studies, Ekelund said, and their readings may differ enough that your step count will be different from mine at the end of our identical walk.
But these issues are relatively trivial, Yates said. Most phones and other types of trackers “are reasonably reliable,” he said, and if they over- or underestimate your steps somewhat, they’ll do so “consistently,” so you can track your progress.
A more intractable problem may be that many of us don’t carry our phones all the time, said Charles Matthews, a physical activity epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute and another co-author of the Lancet study. If your phone sits on your desk, it won’t count your steps. So, for an accurate measure of total daily steps, bring your phone as you amble. Carry it in your pocket, purse, or hand. The accelerometer should pick up your movements regardless, he said.
4. Learn step count math
Here’s some basic step-count math: 1,000 steps is about half a mile. Want to go that extra mile? For most of us, 2,000 steps is about a mile, depending on stride length. Taking 10,000 steps would mean walking for about five miles.
5. Speed doesn’t matter
In terms of time, a half-hour of walking equals around 3,000 steps for most of us, if we don’t hurry.
The good news is we probably don’t need to hurry. In almost all of the recent studies of step counts and mortality, the intensity of the steps, meaning how fast people walked, didn’t seem to matter much. It’s the overall number of steps they took throughout the day that made a difference.
Intensity is the “icing” on the cake, Matthews said. Walking faster has the potential to amplify the health benefits of walking, but only slightly, he said.
The key is to walk as frequently as you can manage, whatever your pace.
6. Step goals aren’t about weight loss
Walking is not a calorie zapper. In broad terms, accumulating 2,000 steps, which is walking for about a mile, burns about 100 calories for an average adult moving at a strolling pace.
Your typical doughnut contains about 300 calories. An apple has about 100. Even 10,000 steps a day adds up to only about 500 calories.
7. It’s easier to count steps than minutes of exercise
Why count steps at all? Because, for most of us, it’s a simpler, more-concrete goal than accumulating “at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity” every week, which happens to be the formal advice in the U.S. government’s 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines.
“I have stopped trying to explain and prescribe the physical activity guidelines to my patients,” said William Kraus, a professor of medicine at Duke University, who was involved in writing the 2018 guidelines.
“They do not understand them and cannot absorb them. I have gone to prescribing steps. I tell them they need to get to a minimum of 7,000 steps per day.”
Stepping goals weren’t included in the 2018 guidelines, since a scientific advisory board believed the evidence then was thin, but most experts expect step counts to be included in future recommendations.
Meanwhile, the advice for most of us is the same, however we measure our movements (and assuming we are physically capable of walking). “Some is good, more is better,” Lee said, and the first step is to just get up and take a few steps.