At some point or another, you've probably been invited to participate in a "steps challenge" with your colleagues, family, or circle of friends. The idea is simple: Keep moving your feet until you hit 10,000 steps. For some people, this is an easy feat—a goal they hit without trying because they have a job or daily schedule that keeps them walking around. For many others, particularly those glued to their computers (for work or play), it's a physical activity goal that requires more attention and intention.
While we generally know that remaining active is the key to a long, healthy life, have you ever wondered why the magic daily number is 10,000 steps—and where that particular marker comes from? And does it matter if you get slightly less or a little bit more? Here's what the experts and research have to say about it—and why this number is thought to be so crucial for physical and mental health in the short- and long-term.
The history of the 10,000 step rule.
When the 1965 Olympic Summer Games were held in Tokyo, Japan, a professor named Yoshiro Hatano became interested in figuring out the most impactful methods for fighting heart disease and obesity. During his research, he wanted to find a way to calculate the number of calories burned while exercising. Hatano theorized that taking 10,000 steps a day—the equivalent of about five miles—would result in a 20 percent increase in calories burned for the average person, explains Lauren Jenai, the co-founder of CrossFit and founder of Manifest. Hatano then created the 'Manpo-kei,' which was a pedometer-like device to encourage people to get on their feet during the Olympic season when health and fitness were top of mind for many.
"The name itself utilized the Japanese character for 10,000, which resembles a human in motion," Jenai sys. "The popularity of the concept and pedometer continues to this day in Japan."
It has now spread to the U.S. and other countries, becoming the health standard recommended by The World Health Organization, American Heart Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To say it was an effective marketing campaign is an understatement, considering an idea born in the 1960s has remained relevant for decades.
Is 10,000 steps really the magic number to hit for optimal health?
Considering that the 10,000 steps rule originated from a marketing campaign in the '60s (albeit based on scientific data), asking what the current professional recommendation is for daily steps is a valid question, says Seema Sarin, MD, the director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health.
The truth is, everyone's activity needs are different and should be determined by a plethora of factors. "Your target will change according to your fitness goals," she continues. "If you're trying to get fit or lose weight, then chances are your step target will be much higher than if you're simply trying to maintain a healthy level of activity."
Dr. Sarin says that on average:
"Inactive" people will reach about 5,000 steps per day.
"Active' people achieve somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 steps per day
"Very active" people easily clear more 12,500 steps per day.
How to set your unique step goal.
If you want to determine your personal movement goals, Jenai says to start with where you are right now by tracking how many steps you naturally achieve on a typical day. In other words, do an audit of your usual, current number of steps. You can do this with a wearable fitness tracker or on your smartphone, which often has a built-in pedometer. Once you establish your baseline starting point, the next part is to be patient with yourself and create a realistic timeline for achieving your daily steps goal.
It's also essential to recognize that not all activities include literal steps (think: swimming, dusting, yoga, playing cornhole in the backyard), but the term "steps" in the context of Hatano's rule does also encompass those activities. To help, there are handy conversion charts you can use to translate non-step movements into steps that do count toward making the 10,000 mark—or whatever step goal you have for yourself. For example, gardening, weight training, or using a handbike are all healthy movement-based activities, and Jenai says to make sure you take credit for them.
Last but not least, listen to your body. And when in doubt, speak with a doctor about how much you should be moving, based on your personal history. You don't want to push yourself and then not be able to be active at all. "Taking on too much too soon can leave you sore, overly tired, or even hurt," Jenai adds. "It is OK to back off some days as needed in order to allow your body to adjust to new levels of movement. It can be surprising how much stronger you feel or how much your endurance improves after a day of rest here or there."
If you really want to get your steps in: Walk, walk, and keep walking.
For avid exercisers, walking may feel lazy or not like a real workout, but in reality, it's one of the best ways to keep yourself limber by increasing your daily number of steps. There are so many health benefits of this type of exercise—and so many ways to sneak short and long walks into your day. Try parking farther from the front of the grocery store than usual; march in place between Zoom meetings at home; get off the subway a stop earlier and walk the extra leg home; choose the stairs over the escalator; or take your dog on a slightly longer stroll each day.
And don't be fooled—brisk walking meets the official recommendations for exercise, explains Timothy Lyman, a certified personal trainer. "While the standard [recommendation] for light-to-moderate intensity exercise is 150 minutes each week, doing 300 minutes of brisk walking each week will have similar results," he says. While that may seem like an unfathomable number to hit weekly, if you actually break it down, it's really just 45 minutes of walking a day.
Where does following these walking duration guidelines land you in terms of steps? In a great spot, as it turns out.
"An average walking pace is anywhere between 14 to 20 minutes per mile, based on the individual, and there are roughly 2,000 steps in a mile," Lyman says. "So we can see that a person who has a brisk walking pace of 15 minutes per mile will cover three miles in their 45-minute walking session, which translates to roughly 6,000 steps."
Plus, when you're intentional with your steps, it gives you a sense of purpose, a boost of confidence, and a way to fight stress, says Mackie Root, an instructor for Onyx and the founder of ReadySetActive online training. "It gives us a reason to get outside, to get fresh air, and to have some time to ourselves," Mackie continues. "Stress is a killer, and one of the best ways to destress is to go for a nice walk and get away from the screens."
Bottom line? Keep walking and tracking your progress toward an active, always-moving lifestyle. Keep that 10,000 steps goal in mind as a general health target to work toward—a reasonable barometer for checking in with yourself to make sure you're being as active as your brain and body needs you to be each day. But don't be too hard on yourself or too rigid about hitting it. There will be many days when you surpass it completely (e.g., you moved houses and took a long trip to IKEA!), and other days where you take way fewer than 10K steps (e.g., your back-to-back meeting schedule didn't allow for many breaks). That's life, and it's all about progress, not perfection.