The idea of taking 10,000 steps a day comes from a marketing ploy: As the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics approached, a Japanese researcher decided to get his nation to be more active by offering pedometers with a name that loosely translated as 10,000 step meter. (The Japanese character for the number 10,000 looks a bit like a person walking.)
More recently, scientists have come up with evidence-based recommendations on step count goals. I recently spoke to some of the world’s leading experts in the science of step counting. Here are their recommendations.
1. Your step count goal may be lower than you think
In recent years, several large-scale studies have ramped up, closely examining how many steps we are likely to need for our health and longevity. In the largest, published last year in Lancet Public Health, dozens of researchers from around the world compiled data from 15 previous step-count studies, some unpublished, covering 47,471 adults of all ages, and compared their typical daily step count along with their longevity.
The sweet spot for step counting wasn’t 10,000 or more. Overall, the pooled data showed that for men and women younger than age 60, the greatest relative reductions in the risk of premature death occurred with between about 8,000 and 10,000 steps per day.
For people over the age of 60, the threshold was slightly lower. For them, the sweet spot in terms of reducing mortality risk was between 6,000 and 8,000 steps per day.
Walking more than 10,000 steps a day wasn’t bad for people, it didn’t increase the risk of death, but it didn’t add much, in terms of reducing the risk of death.
The benefits also weren’t limited to longevity. In other studies, step counts of at least 8,000 a day for adults substantially reduced the risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, depression, many cancers and even sleep apnea, said Janet Fulton, head of the Physical Activity and Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2. Even a small increase in daily steps is good for you
Can’t handle 8,000 steps a day right now? Or 6,000? Or even 5,000? You are not alone. Even before the pandemic, most Americans averaged fewer than 6,000 steps a day. And covid-19 appears to have reduced many people’s daily step counts by 10 percent or more, according to some recent research, with daily activity levels only slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels.
How do you start increasing your step count? Even very small increases in daily steps are good for you.
I suggest starting with an increase of about 500 to 1,000 steps a day, said Ulf Ekelund, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences who studies physical activity and was a co-author of the Lancet step count study.
We currently view 500 steps a day as the minimum target for increased activity in inactive individuals, said Thomas Yates, professor of physical activity, sedentary behavior and health at the University of Leicester in England.
Every week or two, try to rack up another 500 or 1,000 steps, Ekelund said, until you reach at least 8,000 a day, or 6,000 if you’re over 60.
3. You don’t need an expensive pedometer
Phones or watches are reasonably accurate, said I-Min Lee, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health who studies physical activity.
But not everyone owns a watch or similar activity tracker, Fulton said, while nearly everyone now has a smartphone. And nearly every smartphone, Apple or Android, contains an accelerometer, which is a motion tracker, that can tell you how many steps you take, Fulton said.
These devices aren’t as accurate as the research-grade accelerometers used in scientific studies, Ekelund said, and their readings could differ enough that your step count would be different from mine at the end of our identical walk.
But these problems are relatively trivial, Yates said. Most phones and other types of trackers are reasonably reliable, he said, and if they somehow over or underestimate your steps, they’ll do it consistently so you can track your progress.
A more intractable problem might be that many of us don’t always carry our phones with us, said Charles Matthews, a physical activity epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute and another co-author of the Lancet study. If your phone is sitting on your desk, it won’t count your steps. So for an accurate measurement of your total daily steps, carry your phone while walking. Carry it in your pocket, purse or hand. The accelerometer should detect your movement regardless, he said.
Here are some basic calculations for step counting: 1,000 steps is about half a mile. Want to go that extra mile? For most of us, 2,000 steps equal about one mile, depending on stride length. Taking 10,000 steps would mean walking about five miles.
In terms of time, half an hour of walking is equivalent to about 3,000 steps for most of us, if we don’t hurry.
The good news is that we probably don’t need to rush. In nearly all of the recent studies of step counting and mortality, step intensity—that is, how fast people walked—didn’t seem to matter much. It’s the total number of steps they took during the day that makes the difference.
The intensity is the icing on the cake, Matthews said. Walking faster has the potential to amplify the health benefits of walking, but only slightly, he said.
The key is to walk as frequently as possible, whatever your pace.
6. Stride goals are not about weight loss
Walking is not a calorie zapper. In general terms, racking up 2,000 steps, which is equivalent to walking about a mile, burns about 100 calories for the average adult moving at a walking pace.
Your typical donut contains about 300 calories. An apple has about 100. Even 10,000 steps a day only give about 500 calories.
7. It’s easier to count steps than exercise minutes
Why count steps? Because, for most of us, it’s a simpler, more concrete goal than racking up at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, which appears to be the formal advice in the US government’s physical activity guidelines of 2018.
I stopped trying to explain and prescribe physical activity guidelines to my patients, said William Kraus, a professor of medicine at Duke University who was involved in drafting the 2018 guidelines.
They do not understand them and cannot absorb them. I went to prescribe passes. I tell them they have to go at a minimum of 7,000 steps a day.
Gradual goals weren’t included in the 2018 guidelines, as a scientific advisory panel thought the evidence was sparse, but most experts expect step counting to be included in future recommendations.
Meanwhile, the advice for most of us is the same however we measure our movements (and assuming we are physically able to walk). Some is good, more is better, Lee said, and the first step is to get up and take a few steps.
Have a fitness question? E-mail YourMove@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.
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