What’s the Reason for the 10,000 Step Recommendation for Fitness?

I’m always skeptical of round numbers; they’re too convenient. I had wondered, recently, about the 10,000 step recommendation that many fitness trackers set as a daily goal, and that, apparently, the World Health Organization recommends. (I can’t find any actually proof of this on the WHO website, but many other sources report that they recommend this level of activity; all the links to their website I’ve seen that claim to support this number are dead.)

According to the Live Science website, the origin of this number comes from Japan.

“The origins of the 10,000-steps recommendation aren’t exactly scientific. Pedometers sold in Japan in the 1960s were marketed under the name “manpo-kei,” which translates to “10,000 steps meter,” said Catrine Tudor-Locke, director of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. The idea resonated with people, and gained popularity with Japanese walking groups, Tudor-Locke said.”

What’s interesting is that, in Japanese and Chinese, 10,000 is an important number. In Daoism, it’s an expression that means “everything that exists,” and in Buddhism and other oriental philosophies, it also has the meaning of “everything.” If you read texts about these belief systems, you may see the term “the ten-thousand things.” This is also the case in our culture, yet most people don’t realize it. The word “myriad” means 10,000; it’s often used to mean “countless,” or “an uncountable number,” and it comes from Greek, by way of Latin, where the original word had that meaning.

So, why 10,000 steps? It’s an easy goal to visualize, but it’s certainly not ideal for many people. If you walk to work, and walk a lot during the day, you can easily hit 10,000 steps, yet you may still not be fit. If you walk half that much, you may be fit too. And, steps aren’t even the best way of counting activity: a walked step counts the same as one you run, whereas the latter uses far more energy. (And this is why walking desks – desks with slow-moving treadmills – don’t have anywhere near the effect that walking at a normal speed, outdoors does.)

A 2004 article published in the journal Sports Medicine looked at this number, and said:

“Preliminary evidence suggests that a goal of 10000 steps/day may not be sustainable for some groups, including older adults and those living with chronic diseases. Another concern about using 10000 steps/day as a universal step goal is that it is probably too low for children, an important target population in the war against obesity.”

Some sources recommend a time-based goal, such as 30 minutes a day. This is easier to quantify, but it may be harder to ensure that your 30 minutes meet the criteria some organizations recommend. The Centers for Disease Control counts moderate intensity activity as walking 3 miles per hour or faster, a speed which might not be achievable by all. My own brisk walking is about 5 km/h, or just over 3 miles per hour, but when I walk on my treadmill, I can’t go that fast at all. (It could be that the speed the treadmill displays is wrong.) The CDC also says that bicycling under 10 mph is moderate intensity activity; I don’t cycle these days, but 10 mph is quite slow, and doesn’t even make me sweat. So these guidelines are confusing at best.

Most fitness trackers let you set your own goal, but one company, Withings, doesn’t give you that option: its trackers are set to 10,000, and, while it would be trivial to allow users to change that in their apps, the company doesn’t do so. If you use a fitness tracker, choose one where you can set your goal, and not just for steps; some calculate the intensity of your activity, and record minutes of moderate or intense activity.

So, don’t be intimidated by the tyranny of the 10,000-step daily goal. Set your own goal, based on what you walk now, then increase it, slowly, until you reach a goal that is attainable without too much difficulty. Or use a different goal; steps are easy to count, but they may not be the best way to measure activity. It’s frustrating to always miss a goal, so you can try to stay fit without choosing some arbitrary number as a measurement of your activity.