10,000 steps a day — or fewer?

Steve Calechman

Contributor

10,000 steps a day has become the gold standard for many people. That number has sold many step-counting devices and inspired interoffice competitions. But it’s a big number that can be hard to reach. When people continue to not hit five digits, eventually some ditch the effort altogether.

Dr. I-Min Lee is an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a researcher on physical activity. She and her colleagues wanted to look at the basis for 10,000 steps and its validity. Their new study in JAMA Internal Medicine answers two questions about mortality: How many steps a day are associated with lowering the mortality rate? Does stepping intensity level make a difference in mortality when people take the same number of steps?

Where does 10,000 steps a day come from?

Dr. Lee discovered that the origins of the number go back to 1965, when a Japanese company made a device named Manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000 steps meter.” “The name was a marketing tool,” she says. But since the figure has become so ingrained in our health consciousness (it’s often the default setting in fitness trackers), she wanted to see if it had any scientific basis for health.

She had already been studying the relationship of physical activity and health in older women, and it made sense to stay with that population, she says. This group tends to be less active, yet health issues that occur more often as people age become more important. The research looked at 16,741 women ages 62 to 101 (average age 72). Between 2011 and 2015, all participants wore tracking devices called accelerometers during waking hours. The central question was: are increased steps associated with fewer deaths?

What did the research find?

Key findings from the study include these:

  • Sedentary women averaged 2,700 steps a day.
  • Women who averaged 4,400 daily steps had a 41% reduction in mortality.
  • Mortality rates progressively improved before leveling off at approximately 7,500 steps per day.
  • There were about nine fewer deaths per 1,000 person-years in the most active group compared with the least active group.

So, if mortality — death — is your major concern, this study suggests you can reap benefits from 7,500 steps a day. That’s 25% fewer steps than the more common goal of 10,000 steps.

What are the study’s limitations?

Dr. Lee notes that this study was designed to look at only two factors. One is mortality — not anything related to quality of life, cognitive functions, or physical conditions. So, this particular study doesn’t tell us how many steps to aim for in order to maximize our quality of life, or help prevent cognitive decline or physical ailments.

The second question Dr. Lee hoped to answer is whether the intensity of the steps a person took mattered. It doesn’t. “Every step counts,” she says.

What’s the bigger picture?

While the scope of this study is narrow, Dr. Lee draws some bigger-picture findings.

  • Exercise recommendations are often measured in time: at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week has been the federal government’s recommendation since 2008. People who aren’t active may find it difficult to know exactly how long they’ve been moving. Quantifying exercise by counting steps can feel more doable and less overwhelming.
  • If you’re sedentary, add 2,000 more daily steps so that you average at least 4,400 daily steps. While 2,000 steps equals one mile, it’s not necessary to walk it all at once. Instead, try to take extra steps over the course of each waking hour.

She offers good advice for everyone, particularly those looking for extra steps:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park at the first empty space you see, not the one closest to the entrance.
  • Get off the bus one stop earlier than your destination.
  • At home, break up chores. Make more than one trip to bring the dinner dishes into the kitchen, or when bringing groceries in from your car.

“Those little things collectively add up,” Dr. Lee says. “Don’t be intimidated or dissuaded by the 10,000 number.”

Comments:

  1. Balbir Sokhey.

    We should know the percentage of people in seventies can walk 7000 or 10000. What I think may be 20%can do. At this age the mobility fails a person to do this I think we should take care of 80%people who have physical limitation. Due to age. Old age itself is a disease we can name it. .I am 83 yrs old female. The whole walked 6 miles average .a day upto 82 years. With chloestrol medicine all my shoulders are muscle ruptured. I used to do rope skipping. Riding standing bike. Yoga for 10 minutes. For the last 1 year I cannot do. I am diabetic and got severe shingles. I cannot take medicine at all. So 80% people have some limitations. So I think there should be combinations of exercises. 10 minutes yoga 15 minutes standing bike
    Walk for 20 minutes. Gentle mobility of joints exercises. Acupressure for 10 minutes for pain. It works with me. I have pain of svere fibromyalgia. Old people have balance problem some exercises daily for that. Gentle massage of affected joints with mustard oil olive oil along with some pain killer lotion.then use of natural herbs eg turmeric. Drink lot of water with 2000 steps in the beginning gradually increase if the body helps.i.Inthe bed for half an hour move the joints gently in the beginning. But two joints at a time .it works. It helps the joint mobility little bit.every senior person has different problems. If we give lot of choice they can pick what they can do. Like who cannot walk 3000 steps. For an hour can go to store 2 or 3 times a week and walk with walker or without Walker. Leave the home at least 5 or 6 days a week for different chores .that is also an exercise. I could not organize the subject matter.sorry. tried to convey my own experience.

  2. Theresa

    I wish more seniors in our community would pick up a pedometer. We need more active seniors in our community.

  3. Diana Mariano

    This is a very informative article for me and will save and re-read it many times ,I’m sure, that Dr. Lee wrote. I am a 82 yr young lady and consider myself in good physical and mental status and have never had an overweight issue. I average 7,000 – 9.000 steps daily. If not outside walking, than I am doing a brisk walk on my Gazelle Walker. Moving, proper eating habits and a good nite of sleep, I feel is is the key for me.

  4. Stella

    How significant is the 41% reduction in mortality, though? After all, if there were 2 of 100,000 people in the sedentary group that died and 1 of the 100,000 people in the 4,400+ steps a day group that died (in the given time frame), that would translate to a 50% decrease in mortality.

    Definitely not saying that walking is a bad thing – I am very pro-exercise (I did cross country in high school and walk one mile a day at the very least), but that statistics like these can be misleading.

  5. Michel d'Uccle

    It is so tiring to see the confusion between correlation and causation: just because two quantities are correlated does not necessarily mean that one is directly causing the other to change. Correlation does not imply causation.

    The findings of the study talks about correlation: “…Women who averaged approximately 4400 steps/d had significantly lower mortality rates during a follow-up of 4.3 years compared with the least active women who took approximately 2700 steps/d; .”

    Steve Calechman wrongly writes: “Their new study in JAMA Internal Medicine answers two questions about mortality: How many steps a day are associated with lowering the mortality rate? ” . The study does not say that walking will *lower* the mortality rate!

    Even if the two variables have a causal link, it could the opposite direction: people with a better health (for other reasons than walking) do more steps!

  6. yugal

    Thank you for clearing the clouds over the 10000 steps a day tool for good health.
    I have followed this regimen for several years and can say that
    it does take a toll as you age. why burn when less is as efficient for your health.

  7. Sumter Carmichael MD

    Movement is Exercise ! I was diagnosed with Chronic Progressive MS (the worst kind)over 25 years ago. That meant I was ineligible to take the new MS medicine: Interferon. But I was walking and swimming over TWO hours a day in my forties and fifties to manage my weight and chronic Pain from a fall. As a result, I did not have any more new MS symptoms! Now they have done the research to show daily exercise reverses both the inflammatory and degenerative phases of MS. No way I can do 10,000 steps, but I can put in the TIME which has saved me. Death is not the only measure of benefit! Sumter Carmichael MD, author HEAL A Psychiatrists inspiring Story of What It Takes to Recover from Chronic Pain, Depression and Addiction, And What Stands in The Way

  8. Dr. P.M.Manmohan Reddy

    I am quite impressed with this article ! It gave me a practical guideline for my physical activity every day. Hitherto I used to do only 8000 steps ( 3 miles ) a day in 1 hour. Now since the Father’s Day when I was presented with a Fitbit tracker I am doing 10000 steps( 4.2 miles ) a day in 1 hour 25 minutes. That seems to be working out alright! I think I will stick to that and only when I can not make it to that on some days, I will make sure that I at least do 8000 steps. This way I hope it will compensate and even out for better outcome!

  9. Harriet Tung

    I hope there is a study which compares walking 10,000 steps a day versus physical exercise at a gym. I am 72 years old and do not measure myself with a pedometer. Instead my husband (77 years old) and I go to the gym and use the stationery bike or cross trainer for 30 minutes (with varying intensity) and 10 minutes of weight training around 3-4 times per week. We watch our diet and try to sleep 6 hours per night. That, I think, is better routine than just measuring the amount of steps per day. Weight training is important to maintain muscles all over your body. Sometimes I do yoga or pilates to improve flexibility and balance.

  10. Rita Stewart

    Steps are not counted with a Fitbit when I do Yoga or Practice Tai Chi, which I teach. I am 87 and pretty fit doing steps, between 3 and 4 thousand steps. Other kinds of exercise are not counted…
    So I don’t feel it’s an accurate measure

  11. Howard Weisband

    Spot on! I’m age 72, male, doing 10k steps/day for years, wearing a fitness band/pedometer, averaging 12-13 k/day. Combine that with what I call EL EM, Eat Less Exercise More. Lost some 50 plus lbs and kept it off. Feel great, more energy. That routine plus grandkids and baseball keeps me young.

  12. Robert F Carlson

    Walking daily becomes a positive addiction

  13. antonio clemente heimerdinger

    We are conviced that balanced diet base on vegetales and fruits, with physical culture are the base of health. We follow the suggestiosn of the WHO to mesure the exercice by time and have been follow the idea of 300 minutes per week, of varios exercices so far so good.

  14. Marie

    While it is encouraging to have a set goal of 10,000 steps a day there are those that prefer various activities such as swimming, strength training and cycling that are not included in the general idea that “exercise” improves health. Therefore, to single out the goal of 10,000 steps can be limiting for some. Dats should include various forms of exercise. Many people are healthy and increasing their lifespan from exercise, however, they only reach 3,000 to 6,000 a day. I would love to see a more broad study including larger age groups and various types of activity.

  15. Marisa Sylvester

    Thank you for this helpful article and summary of the findings published by Dr. Lee and colleagues. It is encouraging information for many of us who strive for the standard 10,000 step goal and often fall short. I have been exploring the impacts of sedentary careers and the benefits associated with frequent breaks from sitting, particularly when short walks are taken on these breaks. It seems that this new study supports the benefit of walking at least up to 7,500 steps, even if it is low intensity and only a few steps at a time. I expect additional studies will be needed to understand if the findings of this study hold at a similar number of steps for different age ranges and a male population sample.

  16. Michael Schatzki

    This is a great study and a harbinger of more good things to come, but Dr. Lee did not do her homework on the origins of 10,000 steps.

    There are many studies that demonstrate that folks who walk 10,000 have at least a 50% reduction in all cause mortality verses those who are sedentary. But past studies have been based of individual reporting of time walked (e.g. Klaus et. al.- Effect of Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity on All-Cause Mortality in Middle-aged and Older Australians JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(6):970-977). With the advent of fitness trackers, we are going to start getting much more granular information on actual step counts for different population segments and their impacts on health and all cause mortality.

    This study targeted women with an average age of 72 and for this population group 7,500 steps a day provided the maximum reduction in all cause mortality. Hopefully we will soon start to see similar data for all age groups and for both genders. But in the mean time, we need to remember that this applies only to this subgroup. Until we get data to the contrary for other subgroups, 10,000 steps a day remains the safe harbor for physical fitness for everyone else.

    Given the otherwise excellent quality of this study, it’s a shame that the authors did not do even minimal research on the origin of 10,000 steps. The initial study was done in early 1960s by a research team led by Dr. Yoshiro Hatano at the Kyushu University of Health and Welfare in Japan. In the lead-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, a Japanese company seized on Dr Hatano’s research and used it to market a new pedometer, Manpo-kei, which translates as ‘10,000 step meter.’ Thus the 10,000 step threshold became well known, to everyone’s benefit.

  17. Meddco

    Hello,
    I completely agree with your article because I use to go for a daily walk which makes a far change in my body and also help me to be healthy every day.
    Thank you such a true article.

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