For decades, 10,000 daily steps has been held up as the holy grail.
You have probably read about the myriad of health benefits it can provide — from the obvious of weight loss, to the knock-on effects of keeping active, such as a lower risk of cancer, dementia and heart disease.
Today’s fitness trackers are set to a default goal of 10,000 steps and will buzz, ping or send you a congratulatory notification when you hit that target. Private health insurers have even began offering gift vouchers to customers who accomplish it.
But where did the magical number even come from?
You would be forgiven for assuming it was borne out of decades of painstaking research into the precise number of steps needed to keep our body in tip-top condition.
It was, however, a clever marketing ploy by a Japanese company trying to sell pedometers in the wake of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. At that time, there was an increased focus on fitness in the host nation and firms had tried to capitalise on the craze surrounding the Games.
One campaign involved the marketing of Yamasa’s pedometer called the Manpo-kei, which literally means ‘10,000 steps metre’ in Japanese.
But the arbitrary figure was never grounded in science. Instead, the number was selected because the benchmark was a nice, round memorable figure.
Professor Tom Yates, one of the world’s leading experts in the field of physical activity and sedentary behaviour at the University of Leicester, told MailOnline: ‘There was no evidence for it to start with.’
You would be forgiven for assuming it was borne out of decades of painstaking research into the precise number of steps needed to keep our body in tip-top condition. It was, however, a clever marketing ploy by a Japanese company trying to sell pedometers in the wake of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. At that time, there was an increased focus on fitness in the host nation and firms had tried to capitalise on the craze surrounding the Games (pictured, an advert for the original gadget)
HOW MUCH EXERCISE SHOULD I DO?
Adults aged 19 to 64 are advised to exercise daily.
Health chiefs say people should do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity a week.
The advice is the same for disabled adults, pregnant women and new mothers.
But exercising just one or twice a week can reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke.
Moderate activity includes brisk walking, water aerobics, riding a bike, dancing, doubles tennis, pushing a lawn mower, hiking and rollerblading.
Vigorous exercise includes running, swimming, riding a bike fast or on hills, walking up stairs, as well as sports such as football, rugby, netball and hockey.
Yet the geniuses behind that original campaign may have been onto something.
Since then, studies have consistently shown that 10,000 daily steps is a good ballpark for anyone looking to stay healthy — and that it appears much more beneficial than simply sticking to 5,000.
But until recently, the numbers in-between the two, or beyond, hadn’t been extensively studied.
This week, two of the largest studies into step counts waded into the never-ending debate.
In the first, researchers followed 78,500 Britons, aged 40 to 79, who wore a pedometer for one week to measure their movements. Their data was banked and researchers waited seven years before checking whether they were diagnosed with cancer, dementia or heart disease or died prematurely.
Results suggested that 9,800 steps was optimal for preventing dementia, seemingly cutting the risk by 51 per cent.
This was much higher than the 25 per cent protective effect seen in people who walked just 3,800 steps per day.
But interestingly, the researchers found doing just 6,300 steps at a fast speed made people 57 per cent less likely to develop dementia.
And for power walkers — who walked at more than 112 steps (or approximately 85m per minute) — the risk was up to 62 per cent lower.
A quicker walking pace was also found to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and an early death.
The findings caused the researchers, from Denmark and Australia, to question whether walking speed might be more important than overall step counts.
The researchers noted that the study was only observational — so can’t physically prove walking was even behind any of the health benefits. For example, people who walked more may have also ate healthier, exercised more and clocked more sleep.
Step count data was also only collected once, meaning volunteers’ true lifestyles may not have been reflected.
In the second study, researchers found that for every 2,000 steps carried out each day, the risk of an early death was reduced by between 8 and 11 per cent.
It’s surprising that such a small difference — it takes the average person about 15 minutes to walk 2,000 steps — could have such huge consequences on whether someone dies prematurely, experts said.
But the health benefits beyond 10,000 steps appeared negligible, suggesting that number truly is the goldilocks zone. A similar association was seen for cardiovascular disease and cancer diagnoses.
The team noted that their study was only observational and they had less data on those who had done more than 10,000 steps, so the true benefits of going beyond the goal may have been masked.
For now, the researchers have backed the target until further studies are done.
However, some experts still aren’t convinced.
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
Most studies of the same ilk tend to compare 10,000 against much lower numbers, such as 3,000 and 5,000.
Few have compared 10,000 against 8,000 or 12,000, for example, to determine which seems to bring the most health benefits.
Evidence now overwhelmingly implies the optimal step count should be lower, Dr Yates said.
A major review in March suggested anything beyond 8,000 steps a day was useless in terms of preventing an early death.
US researchers looked at 15 studies focusing on 47,000 men and women over the age of 60 — the age at which many of us start to naturally slow down and have a higher risk of disease. The team compared the number of steps taken each day with their likelihood of dying from any cause over several years.
To find the optimal step count, the team sorted participants into four groups based on their average daily steps: 3,500, 5,800, 7,800 and 10,900.
When their medical records were analysed, the researchers found there was roughly a 40 per cent lower risk of an early death among people who got 5,800 daily steps.
This rose to 53 per cent for the two highest groups. However, the effect flattened out at between 6,000 and 8,000 steps, with no added benefit visible beyond that.
Dr Yates said that going beyond 7/8,000 steps a day won’t offer ‘much more benefit’.
And he said the intensity of the steps matters ‘over and above’ the number done.
He told MailOnline: ‘You don’t have to get to 10,000 a day to get benefits of physical activity. Optimal levels are probably slightly lower than that, and intensity of steps matters over and above the volume.’
The review, by an academic team out the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, seems to contradict the idea that more is better when it comes to steps.
Yet public health officials are of the same consensus.
Public Health England, a now-disbanded agency, once stated that there was ‘no guidance that exists’ to back the 10,000 figure, claiming it was more important to ensure people go for a walk of ‘moderate intensity’.
This is defined as one that makes you breathe faster to the point you can talk but not sing for 20 minutes.
However, it’s hard to untangle the exact health benefits of hitting the daily goal. And experts doubt that going above and beyond causes any harm, when it comes to steps, anyway.
Although the evidence remains patchy, experts insist that the 10,000 target provides a memorable goal and transcends all medical jargon. Dr Yates agreed that it was a ‘snappy, public health message’.
However, it isn’t doable for everyone.
Dr Zak Waqar-Uddin, a GP from the North of England, noted the goal may be unachievable for some — including people strapped for time.
Meanwhile, others have become obsessed with the number. And studies have found that nearly half of those who track their movement suffer anxiety about reaching their daily goal.
However, others point to evidence that monitoring step count can actually make people move more.
A study published in January 2021 found people who wear activity devices like Fitbits and Apple watches take an extra 1,200 steps each day and complete nearly 50 minutes more of exercise per week.
Researchers examined the results of over 100 randomised trials of wearable tracking gadgets, involving nearly 17,000 adults over the past decade. Publishing their findings in the BMJ, experts at the University of Copenhagen described the daily activity increases as ‘small to moderate’.
While debate about the merits of the 10,000 steps goal continues, the benefits of getting up and walking for any amount compared to sitting on the sofa aren’t.
For example, 10,000 steps a day burns between 250 and 600 calories for most people, depending on their weight and fitness level, which is the equivalent of cutting out an entire meal each day.
This reduces the risk of obesity and all of the health impacts that come with being too fat.
Walking for a prolonged period also gets blood pumping through the arteries, triggering self-renewal processes that keep them plaque-free and lower the risk of heart disease, dementia and stroke.
The thickening or hardening of the arteries — known medically as atherosclerosis — is caused by a buildup of fatty substances, cholesterol and waste products in the inner lining of an artery.
Studies show that even short bursts of walking can lower levels of anxiety and depression and increase our mental alertness, energy and positive mood.
Walking also helps boost your mood because it increases blood flow and blood circulation to the brain and body. It has a positive influence on the central nervous response system. This triggers mental health benefits because the nervous system is responsible for your stress response.