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At this point, the directive to walk 10,000 steps a day is as much of a wellness mantra as "drink more water" or "eat your vegetables." While those last two are backed by plenty of research, though, that step count doesn't have as much science going for it.
Should you really be trying to hit that number? Some fitness experts suggest a different approach.
Why 10,000 Steps a Day?
Although it might seem that 10,000 steps was set by exercise specialists or public health experts, it actually came from a marketing department. In 1965, a Japanese device maker created a pedometer called Manpo-kei, which translates to "10,000 steps meter," according to UC Davis Integrative Medicine.
The average person walks about 100 steps per minute and an average of an average of 2,000 steps in a mile. So reaching the 10,000-step mark would take around two hours and represents between four to five miles a day, depending on your stride length.
On average, though, Americans only get about half of that. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the average number of steps for a typical American is between 4,000 to 5,000 daily. For reference, 2,000 steps per day is considered "inactive," and 10,000 steps or more is considered "very active," per the NIH.
In terms of whether that 10,000 benchmark should be the go-to goal, though, research doesn't support it. In fact, a May 2019 study in JAMA Internal Medicine on older women found that as few as 4,400 steps daily was associated with longer life compared to those who were more sedentary. Plus, although more benefits were seen as step counts went up, they tended to level off at about 7,500 steps.
Here’s How Many Steps Per Day You Need
While any amount of activity is better than nothing, if you're determined to set a step goal for yourself, you should consider your current activity level and what your goal is.
For example, if you're at that 2,000-step mark of generally sedentary, increasing your step count will be helpful but keep it in mind that improvement also depends on how good those steps are. "Like any kind of fitness, it's quality that matters most," says Toronto-based occupational therapist Jole Gravesande, OT, owner of Pilates studio Forever Fit.
"If you're just dragging yourself around for 10,000 steps to say you did it, that could be very different than 5,000 steps done with a more deliberate, more mindful approach. Even 2,000 steps can be helpful if you feel better after you do it, and you're using that as a starting point."
In terms of how many steps specifically you should aim to hit, the answer is: more. Each person will have a different starting line, says Gravesande, and a better strategy than setting a specific daily number is to simply do a bit more every day.
To build your fitness, Gravesande emphasizes consistency and gradual progress, such as adding 500 more steps per day or gauging that with time instead, like an additional 10 minutes daily. The benefit of those smaller increments, she says, is that they add up and you can break them up throughout the day.
But How Many Steps a Day to Lose Weight?
For those using 10,000 steps as a weight-loss tool, some research indicates that can't be your sole strategy. For example, a December 2019 study from the Journal of Obesity looked at 120 female freshmen who walked either 10,000, 12,500 or 15,000 steps a day for six days a week during their first six months of college.
The study's goal was to evaluate whether exceeding that 10,000-step standard would minimize the kind of weight gain that's common for first-year university students, especially in their first few months of school, according to lead author Bruce Bailey, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Brigham Young University.
The answer? A resounding nope. Even those putting in 15,000 steps every day tended to gain at least a few pounds, he says, adding that it's possible students consumed more calories the more they walked — an effect called compensation theory.
In order to lose weight, getting more activity is useful, but Bailey says walking alone won't be enough. Other strategies such as reducing calorie intake and adding strength training should be part of the equation as well.
Why Walking Matters
"Going beyond 10,000 steps per day decreases sedentary time and increases moderate activity, which may have benefits that go beyond weight," Dr. Bailey says. "There are many emotional and health advantages to keeping up that level of activity."
Previous research backs up that statement. According to May 2019 research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, walking should be considered a major opportunity to help prevent and manage cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.
"It's hard to overstate how beneficial walking can be," says Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, Denver-based personal trainer and running coach. "It's a full-body activity, so you're gaining strength in every major muscle group, plus you're improving balance, posture, alignment, joint health and mood."
How to Get Started Taking More Steps
First, know your current step count. If you don't have a fitness tracker, you may want to walk the same route every day so you can begin to add more distance. Gravesande suggests walking enough to feel like you're challenging yourself but not so much that you feel fatigued or out of breath.
"Especially if you're not accustomed to walking or if excess weight is a factor, you don't want to overdo it," she says. "Take breaks along the route if you need to and set small daily goals instead of overwhelming large ones."
In addition to dedicated walks, keep in mind that daily activity adds up. If you take "movement snacks" throughout the day, your step count will naturally tick higher, and most importantly, you'll be breaking up blocks of sedentary time.
No matter what number you end up hitting by day's end, take some time to assess how you feel, Gravesande says. Walking and moving more will likely have a ripple effect across mood, consistent energy levels and sleep quality.
"How you feel is always more important than what your fitness tracker records," she says.