It’s rare that health advice comes packaged in nice round numbers, which may explain why so many of us have latched on to the idea of walking 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) as a satisfyingfitness goal. The obsession was initially driven by the increasing popularity of wearable fitness devices. For example, FitBit — the company whose name often stands in for all brands of fitness trackers — saw their revenue shoot up from $5 million in 2010 to $1.8 billion in 2015, and they reported 25 million active users in January 2018. But where did that 10,000-step target come from, and is it too good to be true? Take a break from trying to fit in those last 316 steps and find out.

Woman walking

Where Did That 10,000 Come From?

The reason that number is so unusually round is because it isn’t the result of a health study; it came from a marketing team! Inspired by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a Japanese company released a pedometer called “manpo-kei,” which translates to “10,000 step meter.” As we can see, they did their job exceptionally well, to the point that it’s overtaken other exercise metrics in many people’s minds. Dr. Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, an internal medicine practitioner in Bethesda, MD, points out, “There is actually no recommended daily step count from a medical standpoint. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instead recommends that adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, which can include brisk walking. Let’s say you spread that over five days, you’d need to walk 1.5 miles, or 3,000 steps, at a pace of 3mph for 30 minutes to meet the CDC goal, in addition to any slower steps you take when you’re just moving around at home or at work.”

Regardless of the origins, scientists studying the benefits of walking since then have often used 10,000 steps as a baseline. For instance, a study published in 2000 in the journal Hypertension Research found that when people with mild cases of hypertension started walking at least 10,000 steps a day for 12 weeks, their blood pressure and overall ability to exercise both improved. In addition, health professionals identify a 10,000-step daily target as an achievable number when encouraging people to factor more exercise into their lives. Dr. Susan Besser, MD, a family medicine practitioner in Baltimore, MD, explains, “The studies suggest 10,000 steps is a good number, and it’s certainly easy to remember. Counting steps is probably the easiest metric, since most people have a step counter on their smartphone.”

Why Focus on Walking?

It’s 6pm, you have dinner plans, and your fitness tracker has only recorded 2,000 steps for the day, leaving you wondering: Is walking really that good for us? Yes it is, according to Besser, who explains that there are many benefits that make it worthwhile. “Weight management is probably the most common motivation, but heart health is another: The heart is a muscle so the more you exercise it, the stronger it is,” she says. “Regular exercise also promotes regularity in the gastrointestinal tract; good balance; and stronger bones and muscles, which reduces the risk of osteoporosis.” Plus, unlike many forms of exercise, for most people walking doesn’t require expensive gym memberships, special equipment, or additional training.

Are 10,000 Steps Enough?

More recent studies, however, have suggested that that 10,000 goal might actually be too low if we want the maximum health benefits. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2017 found that Glasgow postal workers who walked over 15,000 steps a day were healthier than those who were sedentary and showed no signs of metabolic syndrome (a term that covers a group of risk factors, including high blood pressure and high blood sugar, that increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes). In addition, Mintz highlights research based on the lifestyle of the Amish: “Many Amish people give up modern conveniences such as cars so they tend to walk more,” he explains. “A study in 2004 showed that Amish men walked over 18,000 steps a day, and only 25 percent were overweight, and none were obese.”

Er, that’s great, but what about those of us whose jobs and lifestyles don’t easily accommodate walking vast distances every day? Mintz recommends aiming for “somewhere between 8,000 and 14,000 steps — which makes 10,000 a pretty good number.” He admits that “this goal tends to be challenging for most people, but any increase in your step count and daily activity is going to improve your health.”

Make It Work For You

As with any fitness goal, your ideal step count should be personalized to suit what you can do. Just because your colleague has run three marathons doesn’t mean you have to, and just because your sister is doing 12,000 steps a day with her husky puppy doesn’t mean you have to match her. Dr. Luiza Petre, MD, New York City-based cardiologist and weight management specialist, advises, “We should set goals on an individual basis, with the aim of achieving and then surpassing them. There is no magic number or limit, although more steps is always better. Instead of just counting steps, we should strive to include a variety of activities in our daily routine and set our own personal goals for growth.” Speaking of variety, if you don’t want to walk or can’t, Petre suggests swimming laps, taking pool aerobic classes, or cycling as alternatives that raise your heart rate and strengthen your core while putting less strain on joints.

Instead of letting your fitness device control your life, take those 10,000 steps as a suggestion rather than a rule, adding and subtracting a little until you get to a goal that’s going to motivate you to be as active as you can without letting it become an obsession. Speaking from her own experience, Besser says, “I like walking and I try to get 7,000 to 10,000 steps daily, but the amount depends on what’s going on that day. My advice is don’t get frustrated or angry if you can’t make your goal — whatever it is — every single day. Life can get in the way, but as long as you continue to walk more days than not, give yourself a high five!” And if the fitness tracker counts that high five as one more step, we’ll take it.

What’s your walking goal, and how do you get there? Tell us your tips @BritandCo.

(Photo via Getty)