Is 10,000 Steps Per Day a Good Health Baseline?

Is 10,000 Steps Per Day a Good Health Baseline?

Whether you use your phone, a smartwatch, or a fitness tracker for evaluating your training and regular activity, one of the basic metrics it monitors is your step count, and how close you get to 10,000 a day. But where did this supposedly magical measurement come from, and is it even a valid assessment of daily activity? And if not, how far should you try to walk? These are the questions we'll answer in this post so you can set better wellness targets. 

A Brief History of Step Counting

Though the desire to quantify physical activity might seem new, its commercialization actually goes back much further. Abraham-Louis Perrelet of Switzerland created a pedometer in 1780. A century later, genius inventor Nikola Tesla was still logging his daily steps in his head because Perrelet’s breakthrough still hadn’t been turned into a commercially marketable device. But less than 20 years after Tesla’s death, some ingenious souls living half a world away would do exactly that.

In the early 1960s, Dr Yoshiro Hatano from the Kyushu University of Health and Welfare investigated the exercise habits of his countrymen and women and found that the typical Japanese adult was taking around 4,000 steps per day. “Dr Hatano was worried that the Japanese were busy importing a slothful American lifestyle, as well as a love of watching baseball, and wanted to help them get more active,” according to a BBC News story.

So he came up with an idea that if people increased their daily step count to 10,000, they’d potentially burn an additional 500 calories, helping them stay slim and healthy. Another researcher, Dr Iwao Ohya, shared this insight with Juri Kato, an engineer from Tokyo clockmaker Yamasa. With public interest in health at an all-time high thanks to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Kato tinkered with several prototypes and Yamasa released its pedometer several months later. They called it Manpo-kei, which means 10,000 steps meter. It was an instant hit, with all 37 Japanese prefectures soon setting up walking clubs so people could get their daily steps together.

Creating the Modern Age of Wearable Technology

In 2007, James Park and Eric Friedman raised $400,000 to fund the creation of a mass-market, wearable fitness tracker they called Fitbit. The following year, they aimed to get 50 preorders after speaking at the TechCrunch conference but ended up with over 2,000. Launching at the end of 2009, they shipped an initial 5,000 units, with 20,000 more orders soon fulfilled. Getting into Best Buy stores helped the original Fitbit to take off nationwide, and suddenly, people everywhere were using it to track their steps. In 2010, Nike began offering a puck that people could put in their running shoes to transmit step count and other data points to an iPod.

With the advent of the iPhone, this metric made its way into smartphones while other manufacturers imitated the Fitbit – which Google bought for $2.1 billion – and started adding sleep tracking, elevation gain, and other objective measurements to their own wrist-worn wearables. Polar, which pioneered heart rate tracking back in the 1970s, was one of the first companies to add fitness-focused features to a smartwatch (along with newcomer Pebble), with Garmin, Suunto, and other brands soon following suit. Then came the dawn of second-generation wearables offering more advanced metrics and multiple sensors, including the Oura Ring and Whoop band. Most of these advanced devices continue to offer step counting to their users.


Putting a Pedometer to Use or Taking Unplugged Walks

While chasing a 10,000 daily step goal has become widespread, you might want to take your daily number with a grain of salt. As Michael Easter, award-winning journalist and author of The Comfort Crisis, summarized one of his articles on his Instagram feed:  “I recently investigated the fitness tracker industry and the results aren’t great. All fitness trackers are some degree of wrong. Some are off by 5%. Others are off by an insane 245%.”

He went on to state that a cheap, hip-worn pedometer is typically more accurate than an expensive ring, band, or smartwatch when it comes to counting steps. If you already own one of these supposedly “smart” devices, Easter advised wearing both it and a pedometer for a week, averaging out the percentage difference in daily step count, and subtracting that percentage from your tracker’s total moving forward. 

If you’re not into tracking, don’t despair. Just take a walk as often as possible and don’t worry about monitoring it. When studying the populations that have not only the greatest longevity but also stay active and vital into old age, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner discovered that people who lived beside the ocean in Okinawa, among the hills of Sardinia, or on the Southern Coast of California, daily walking was a common, health-promoting habit. And in some cases, people’s pedestrianism took them up to six miles per day across varied terrain.

So whether you decide to replace a short drive or two by walking, wander to get coffee or top up your groceries, or prefer meandering along a trail with your significant other and kids after work, adding more walking into you daily routine will greatly benefit your health. And like the centenarians in Japan, Italy, and other Blue Zones, you don’t need to track your steps while doing so to gain the wellness benefits. Just get outside and get walking.

If you find step counting to be motivational, then you might not even need to log 10,000 to move the needle in a positive direction. According to a Blue Zones article, “the risk reduction for adults aged 60 and older plateaus at 6,000 – 8,000 steps per day.” And as Easter put it in his article, “just try to hit some large number every day and you’ll be fine.” More movement is always better than less, and if you can complement regular training with consistent walking, then you’re bound to improve your long-term physical health.