How one number became sacred in fitness circles.
Ten thousand is also how many steps a day you’re told to take if you want to maintain good health. It’s been prescribed like a multivitamin, or those eight, eight-ounce glasses of water we were once instructed to consume every day to stay hydrated and rosy.
And it’s definitely a thing. The American Heart Association recommends 10,000 steps every day. The Kaiser Permanente health group administers its own program, “designed to help you gradually increase your physical activity level and work toward a goal of walking 10,000 steps each day.” If you buy a FitBit, one of the new generation digital pedometers, it comes with a preset goal of 10,000 steps daily (although you can change that). Even Fox New is on it: “Study: 10,000 Steps a Day Is Good for You1.”
Why 10,000 steps? Was it the result of multi-year fitness studies involving warehouses filled with treadmills? Not precisely. It was actually concocted as part of a marketing slogan in Japan. A watchmaker named Yamasa Tokei originally trotted out the 10,000 steps thing in 1965. He made and sold a pedometer he called Manpo-Kei, which when repeated out loud mimics the rhythm of a walk. In Japanese this translates into “10,000 step meter.” Ads for Tokei’s device said, "Let's walk 10,000 steps a day!”
He may have picked the number because it sounded good in Japanese; maybe he liked its friendly orotundity. I don’t know. But the number caught on among Japanese fitness aficionados. Walking clubs sprouted, and the idea of 10,000 steps daily was soon enshrined. In the late 1990s, “10,000 steps” sailed across the Pacific, washing ashore in American fitness magazines, including Walking. Throughout the early 2000s, the number served as a sort of talisman that, when respected and honored, granted the acolyte good health and enhanced attractiveness to the opposite sex.
My wife recently gave me a FitBit Flex. It looks a lot like one of those LiveStrong bracelets everyone used to wear before Lance became less lovable. (Other wrist-inhabiting data gatherers are the Jawbone and Nike+ FuelBand.) It replaced my $20 drugstore pedometer, which required that I constantly fish it out of a pocket and inspect it, and thereby found it easy to ignore.
My Fitbit is like a garrulous and geeky work-out buddy. It not only counts my steps all day, it also tracks whether my pace is fast, moderate or slow, and slices and dices my day into in 15-minute intervals, informing me what I was doing walk-wise during each. The data is wirelessly uploaded to my laptop and smartphone, and, if I were so inclined, I could parse the data like an accountant on Adderall. I could also share it with friends via the FitBit website.
I don’t do any of these things. Yet I like the FitBit’s collegiality, and think the 10,000 step Kool-Aid is pretty tasty, even if it was distilled from a dorky marketing slogan. 10K steps never feels like a workout to me — it’s more like I’ve been in a yoga class for beginners. But repeated daily, it yields a persistent sense of alertness and limberness. And not just in the hours after a walk, but more or less all that day and the next. What’s more, hitting that goal always brings a nice sense of accomplishment to my day. When my FitBit vibrates and sets off little pyrotechnic LED explosions, I feel like I’ve reached a landmark, one phase in a 50-year Soviet-era rebuilding campaign. The day’s cocktail is earned.
So what exactly does 10,000 steps involve? And do researchers think that number actually results in health gains?
Give or take, 10,000 steps is five miles — depending on terrain, your natural stride, and your proclivity to game the number by gently jiggling your wrist while sprawled on a couch. Not that I’ve ever done that. So it’s about 90 minutes of walking every day. It’s also about twice what the average American walks daily in general getting about: moving from parked car to mall, from office cubicle to break room.
Many recent studies have shown that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise results in a dramatic increase in health benefits. Moderate exercise can include brisk walking, which is often defined as a pace at which you can carry on a conversation with a companion, but are still too winded to sing. If you can belt out, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya tomorrow” while walking, you’re not walking fast enough. (Also, you’re walking too close to me.)
Research shows that by walking 30 minutes a day your chances of a premature death can drop by 20 percent. Studies have also shown that increasing your walking from 30 to 90 minutes doesn’t come close to tripling the benefits. In fact, it cuts premature mortality merely by an additional four percent.
So why bother with 10,000 steps? For reasons that are still being figured out, studies still show that it’s a number that works. (The fact that researchers are testing the scientific merits of a Japanese marketing slogan is charming — akin to the National Institutes for Health launching a major study to see if Wheaties actually produces champions.)
A 2004 study published in Sports Medicine found “growing evidence that 10,000 steps/day is an amount of physical activity that is associated with indicators of good health,” including lower body fat and blood pressure. Another study of people with type 2 diabetes found that those who walked 10,000 steps or more (sometimes nearly twice that) over a nearly two-month period lost on average 16 pounds more than a control group that walked just 4,000 steps a day.
What’s more, there’s a utilitarian advantage to aiming high: If you come in low, you’re still reaping benefits. And there’s the fact that all your daily steps won’t be brisk (is that “Tonight” from West Side Story I hear you singing?). By shooting for 10,000 you’re bettering the odds that more of your steps will fall in the brisk zone.
Of course, coming in low and not hitting your target can also be demoralizing. I’ve talked to public health professionals who aren’t wild about the 10,000-step thing because of that. A large number of people simply can’t walk 10,000 steps in a day — including some of the one-in-three Americans who are obese, and those whose just haven’t kept up their cardio infrastructure.
If you’re not physically fit enough to walk 10,000 steps daily, the incessant talk about it may well convince you it’s not worth walking at all. Dr. Caroline Richardson of the University of Michigan and others would rather see an emphasis on more walking, no matter how much, rather than fetishizing a single target number. If you’re now walking around 5,000 steps a day, as the average American does, boosting that to 7,000 is a fine accomplishment — and failing to hit 10,000 shouldn’t been seen as a failure.
“I can almost guarantee that someone overweight forcing 10,000 steps will end up with plantar facaitis and watching television all day,” Richardson told me. “More and more of us can’t walk 10,000 steps in a day. For a lot of my patients, going from 2,000 steps a day to 4,000 is huge.”
And that’s where modern pedometers perform a bit of dark magic, akin to the miracle of compounded interest back in the day. (For those under 30: Banks used to pay interest and your savings account would slowly but steadily increase without having to do anything. No, really. It was pretty cool.)
Steps are cumulative from the time you step out of bed — you don’t have to carve out 75 minutes to get to the gym, work out, shower, change, and get home. You gather steps like a gleaner gathers grain, bit by bit. With a pedometer, if you have ten free minutes — like when the guy who was supposed to call doesn’t call, or that oil change is taking longer than you’d thought — you can go out gather up a basketful of steps. A little here, a little here, and at the end of the day it all adds up. I’ve found that a FitBit creates a helpful new topography to my day, and like a compass lets me know where I am.
Other studies suggest that pedometers don’t just point us in the right direction. They also motivate thanks to the ongoing feedback loop. A 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that test subjects who were provided pedometers boosted their step counts by 2,000 steps a day on average, compared to those who were coached about walking but not given the devices. Overall, pedometer wearers saw a rise in physical activity of 27 percent.
Of course, tracking steps is also part of the whole Quantified Self movement, and therein lies a slippery slope. One can go overboard with tracking every aspect of daily life. (The smartphone app “Bowel Mover Pro” tracks “your digestion and health habits” and helps identify “patterns of what gets your bowels moving!” Also, it allows you share this data with others.) But walkers inherently seem to understand moderation. And they’ve discovered that unobtrusive technology, used sparingly, can have a powerful impact.
Can you hear the people sing? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again. When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start.
Or something like that. • 9 January 2014
Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails. He's currently working on a book about the history of walking in America. Find him at his website or follow him @waynecurtis.