I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
We are told by medical and fitness professionals that we need to walk 10,000 steps a day in order to be physically fit. But why 10,000 steps, and does that include the ones taken between the couch and the fridge and back again during commercial breaks?
The Origin of 10,000 Steps
Claudia Hammond, writing for the BBC, notes that “You might assume that this number has emerged after years of research to ascertain whether 8,000, 10,000, or maybe 12,000 might be ideal for long-term health. In fact, no such large body of research exists.” The figure sprang from a Japanese ad campaign for a pedometer in 1965.
Dr. Yoshiro Hatano worked for a company called Yamesa when he invented a pedometer. The sales department had to figure out how to market such a device. Knowing that people like big, round numbers they called the pedometer “Manpo-kei;” this translates into “10,000-step meter.” Apparently, the Japanese character for 10,000 looks a bit like a person walking 万.
From this the advertising campaign flowed and the 10,000 step mantra passed into the consciousness of millions without question.
However, later research has shown that 10,000 steps is not a bad goal to shoot for. “Normative data indicate that healthy adults typically take between 4,000 and 18,000 steps/day, and that 10,000 steps/day is reasonable for this population, although there are notable ‘low active populations’ ” (International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Activity, 2011).
Human health is far too complicated to be reduced to a long chain of numerical imperatives. For some people, these rules can do even more harm than good.
Amanda Mull, Atlantic Magazine
Walking for Work
Most occupations these days call for workers to sit at desks for hours at a stretch. That’s not good says the Mayo Clinic: “Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns. They include obesity and a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels — that make up metabolic syndrome.”
The advice is to get up from the desk and move around every 30 minutes, or get a job as a postie. A 2017 study of letter carriers in Glasgow, Scotland found they averaged 15,000 steps a day. And, of course, they have good cholesterol levels, normal waistlines, and a lower risk than average of heart disease.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, long-distance walking contests became very popular. Contestants, called pedestrians, would enter events of up to 1,000 miles in length. These folk would look at our attempts to hit 10,000 steps a day and say “Wusses.” Or they would if the word existed back then, which it didn’t.
But, we wusses have been guilted into trying to achieve what is largely impossible for most of us. Ten thousand steps is about eight km (five miles) and will take the average person a little under two hours to walk that distance. How many of us have almost two hours to spare in our days for walking? Exactly.
Don’t Walk and Text
Here’s verywellfit.com, “Studies found that the average American adult only makes it about halfway to a goal of 10,000 steps a day.” People in Switzerland average 9,650 steps a day, and the Japanese 7,168.
A study of old order Amish people in Ontario, Canada found the average man logged 18,000 steps a day and the average woman, 14,000. And, surprise, surprise, the Amish have the lowest obesity rates among Canadians.
Time More Than Steps
Recent research questions the 10,000-step model in favour of time spent exercising. Martin Gibala is a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, Canada and he’s come up with “The One-Minute Workout” that shoots down the I-don’t-have-time excuse.
It sounds too good to be true, but there’s a catch (Dang! There always is). The one minute workout isn’t a gentle stroll to the coffee machine or a slow amble to the sidewalk for a smoke. It’s a spell of manic activity.
Professor Gibala says getting fit is all about a 60-second burst of high-intensity exercise.
But wait. There’s less. That one minute thing was so two years ago.
According to The Globe and Mail, Prof. Gibala’s “newest study finds that dashing up a staircase for just 20 seconds, repeated a few times a day, can measurably improve your fitness.” Volunteers who performed this exercise for six weeks showed a five percent improvement in aerobic fitness.
However, there’s still a large and growing body of opinion that says the minimum amount of moderate exercise is 150 minutes a week. This doesn’t have to be gut-busting stair climbing that leaves you gasping for air. Prof. Gibala suggests combining a daily walk with a block or two of rapid strides before settling back to a slower pace.
But, the 150 minutes a week could change; that’s the way of these things. Remember when we were all exhorted to drink eight glasses of water a day and we had to observe its corollary of never being far from a toilet? The Mayo Clinic now says “your individual water needs depend on many factors, including your health, how active you are and where you live.
“No single formula fits everyone.” The same can be said about exercise.
None of this lets any of us off the hook. Regular, moderate exercise, of whatever duration, is important for improving health.
- I-Min Lee is a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health. She studied the walking habits of 16,000 elderly American women and compared them to longevity. Women who logged an average of 4,400 steps a day had a “significantly lower” mortality rate than the women who were least active. More walking resulted in lower mortality.
- In August 2000, Jean Béliveau left Montreal, Canada on an epic walk. Eleven years and 49 pairs of shoes later, he completed his 76,000-kilometre (46,600-mile) journey around the world. He was overcoming a mid-life crisis and promoting “Peace and non-violence for the profit of the children of the world.”
- A Big Mac has 540 calories; it will take one hour and 43 minutes to walk that off. But who doesn’t have fries with that? So, a large order of fries adds another hour and 37 minutes to working off the meal. Best forget about the pop or you’ll be walking way past the next mealtime.
- Between three and six million years ago (an eye-blink in geological time) our human ancestors became bipedal by walking upright. But they didn’t have Fitbits to check on whether or not they were hitting their goals.
- “How Many Average Daily Steps People Walk?” Wendy Bumgardner, verywellfit.com, August 3, 2019.
- “Fitness Trackers: What Is the Origin of 10,000 Steps a-Day? Edwina Langley, Evening Standard, June 21, 2019.
- “How Many Steps/Day Are Enough?” Catrine Tudor-Locke et al., International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Activity, July 28, 2011.
- “What Are the Risks of Sitting too Much?” Edward R. Laskowski, M.D., Mayo Clinic, May 8, 2018.
- “Time Spent in Sedentary Posture Is Associated with Waist Circumference and Cardiovascular Risk.” W.W. Tigbe, et al., International Journal of Obesity, May 2017.
- “ ‘1 Minute Workout’ Promises to Get You Fit in 60-Second Bursts.” CBC News, February 8, 2017.
- “Canadian Researcher Behind One-Minute Workout Has a Shorter Option.” Alex Hutchinson, Globe and Mail, January 27, 2019.
- “What 10,000 Steps Will Really Get You.” Amanda Mull, Atlantic, May 31, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Tessa Schlesinger on September 14, 2019:
And that's fine. I happen to be retired. But I also don't have a car, and I've spent my entire life walking. I always walk. At one point, during my youth, I used to walk about about 5 miles per hour and walked for 4 or 5 miles every day.
I gave birth to my daughter at 34 years old. The doctor who examined me wanted to know if I was a professional sportman because my body was in such good physiological condition. It was just from walking.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 14, 2019:
I have a treadmill in my home and I'm on it every day and I'm good for more than 200 minutes a week. I'm retired and way too busy to do 10,000 steps a day. I do what I can and that has to be enough.
Tessa Schlesinger on September 14, 2019:
I find it fairly easy to walk 10,000 steps a day. On busy days, I do 18,000 or 19,000.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on September 14, 2019:
Oh I don't always walk 10,000 steps a day. I do when I walk to work though, usually about 11 or 12k steps I do then.