If someone asked you how many steps per day you should take to be healthy, what would you say? Most people would think your answer would be 10,000 steps per day because that is what they would say, the amount often recommended on the internet, and the default daily goal on their Fitbit. But is there any medical reason to embrace the 10,000 steps number? Not really.
To understand the origin of this number we need to take a trip back in time and to a unique food culture that is very different from what most of us live in today. Unlike the sedentary and fast food life styles enjoyed by many of us in 2015, the 1960s in Japan were a much different place, and the entire history is document by Dr. Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor who studies walking behavior at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Center.
The story begins at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At that time, a local company created a pedometer called the man-po-kei. “Man” stands for “10,000,” “po” stands for “step,” and “kei” stands for “meter” or “gauge.” As it turns out, 10,000 is a very auspicious number in Japanese culture, which means that a name like man-po-kei would perform well for marketing purposes. Whatever the reason for the adoption of this particular number, man-po-kei resonated with people at the time, and they went man-po-kei-ing all over the place.
The obvious problem is that Japan was, at that time, a very different place from the world we live in today. Diets had fewer calories and fat and the world had fewer cars. Average per-capita food supply for Japanese people in 1964 was 2,632 calories, while the average for Americans in 2011 was 3,639. That’s a difference of about 1,000 calories, which is equivalent to 20,000 steps for an average-size person.
So what is the right number of steps? The short answer is that depends on a number of factors, including diet and other health conditions. From a public health perspective, people should focus on not taking less than 5,000 steps and remember that incremental activity, albeit below the optimal amount, still has a major impact on one’s health and well-being. Studies show that a sharp decrease in risk factors (20% to 30%) for people categorized as inactive vs. moderately inactive.
For a more detailed review of the history of 10,000 steps, check out Dr. Tudor-Locke’s research on the subject. It’s worth taking a look at because a blog post on the subject can only do so much.