We’re so used to hearing that we need 10,000 steps a day for health, but where did that number even come from, and do we really need to take that many steps?
You’ll probably be surprised to learn that there was no actual research behind the 10,000 steps recommendation – it was actually a 1965 Japanese marketing campaign for a pedometer.
The Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a person running, which is how the company came up with the slogan ‘manpo-kei,’ meaning ’10,000 step meter.’ For some reason, what seems like the entire world picked up on that slogan and turned it into what seemed to be a universal recommendation.
That being said, most of us most of us don’t even hit 5000 steps a day. We’re getting more sedentary as technology does more things for us in our daily lives, and this can be detrimental to health.
The 10,000 steps a day goal – around 5 miles – can be overwhelming for some people, in particular those who have trouble walking or who are just starting their fitness journey.
What many people don’t know is that we don’t have to exercise intentionally in order to get those steps in.
Optimizing our NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis, is an important part of weight maintenance and overall wellness. Step count can be a part of that, even when we aren’t exercising intentionally.
We tend to concentrate only on activity through intentional exercise, which seems like the only activity that ‘counts.’ That’s not true though! Intentional exercise accounts for only a small part of our daily energy usage – around 5% – while NEAT can use upwards of 15%.
We take steps when we clean, walk to the sink to wash our hands, and pace while we’re on the phone. All of that adds up. These ‘incidental steps,’ as some scientists call them, can make a huge difference in our health.
There have been several recent step count studies:
A 2022 study published in JAMA found that ‘incidental steps’ in particular resulted in a lower risk for heart disease and cancer.
The 2022 study published in JAMA Neurology found that a step count of around 9800 steps a day was associated with a 50% lower risk for dementia.
According to this 2021 study, 7000 or more steps a day seems to be the sweet spot that’s associated with lower risk for all-cause mortality.
This 2020 systematic review found that adding 1000 steps a day significantly improves cardiovascular risk factors and all-cause mortality, but not blood sugar levels.
All of these tell us more or less what we already know – that a higher step count is associated with better health.
But here’s the problem with a lot of step count research – people who count their steps are more likely to be rich white women.
This has left a lot of the population without representation in the research, until now.
What does the latest step count research say about steps a day?
The latest steps-per-day numbers come from the All of Us research program, based in the United States. All of Us is an initiative that started in 2018 with a goal of collecting health information from one million Americans – in particular those who have been underrepresented in biomedical research so far.
All of Us is different from previous step-count research because older studies have relied on either self-reporting (notoriously inaccurate) and/or wearables that were only used for a short duration, limiting the amount of data that researchers would collect. These studies would also report findings years later without accounting for any changes in activity levels over that time.
Previous studies also focused specifically on all-cause mortality, diabetes, or heart disease as outcomes versus the association of step count on chronic disease across diverse populations.
Because All of Us has a more diverse population in its database, as well as several methods of data collection, it may yield more accurate and clinically relevant information. For the All of Us step count research, 6000 participants wore trackers continuously for an average of four years, and also gave researchers access to their health records.
Those factors gave All of Us a robust amount of information from which to draw its conclusions.
How many steps should we be taking?
All of Us concluded that the ideal number of daily steps is around 8200. That’s equivalent to four miles. This is in line with other research on the topic, and not a big surprise, to be honest.
Like all of the other step count studies before it, All of Us found that risk for obesity (in non-overweight individuals), GERD (likely associated with obesity), sleep apnea (also likely associated with obesity), and major depressive disorder decreases in a linear fashion with steps taken. This means that the more steps participants took, the lower their risk for these particular conditions.
The research suggested that for people who are already overweight, getting around 11,000 steps per day decreased their risk for obesity by 50% over 5 years.
All of Us also found that around 8000-9000 steps a day was associated with a lower risk for hypertension and diabetes, but the benefit plateaued at that level. Other studies have found this as well – the benefits of more steps drop off somewhere around 10,000. More isn’t always better.
Interestingly, All of Us also found that while disease risk increases when step counts are low, it also remains higher when step counts remain the same over time. It appears to me that we need to continue to adjust our step counts upwards.
The sAll of Us step count study did have some limitations – their study population was relatively young, and the study was observational. Non-stepping activities such as swimming were not accounted for.
How fast do those steps need to be?
While there was an association with step intensity, it wasn’t as consistent as with overall number of steps. The lesson: you need to take more steps, no matter what speed you take them at.
The bottom line on step count recommendations:
Moving more in general is one of the keys to better overall health. We don’t move enough, and All of Us is just one more piece of evidence that shows that we need to do better for disease prevention. But we don’t have to stress ourselves out trying to take 10,000 steps a day.
While we know that taking steps is associated with a lower risk for disease, we also understand that steps don’t have to be taken in the context of exercise – incidental steps, or the steps we take as we go about our daily activities, are just as valuable for risk reduction.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a 4-mile activity recommendation, especially if you aren’t active right now. The best way to tackle it is to start moving to the best of your abilities. Anything more than what you’re doing now, is an improvement. Even if it’s not 10,000, 8000, or even 5000 steps.
Moving more looks different to different people, and what’s important is that you move in a way and in an amount that works for you.
You don’t need to join a gym or sweat for hours each day to improve your health. Optimize your NEAT, and do your best with steps.