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Do you really need to take 10,000 steps per day?

We’ve all heard or read it somewhere. For a long time, fitness TV shows and magazines have been spreading the word that 10,000 steps per day is enough physical activity to increase your energy levels, diminish the risk of heart disease and reduce waist size.

Australia’s Heart Foundation, the American Heart Association, Japan’s Ministry of Health, and the UK National Obesity Forum all use the 10,000 steps metric as a guideline. Popular fitness trackers like Fitbit, Azumio and Jawbone also take the rule for granted and set it as their default goal.

But where did this magical number come from in the first place?

Well, spoiler alert: it actually originated as a marketing slogan. On the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese public was in an absolute sporting craze. Pedometers were in high demand, and one company, Yamasa Tokei, called its product the ‘Man-po-kei’ which roughly translates to “The 10,000 step metre” (‘men’ means 10,000, ‘po’ is step, ‘kei’ is metre).

And just like that, a myth was born. Basically, the 10,000 step rule has no more scientifical basis than the “All in or nothing” slogan from Adidas.

The number is round, grand and catchy alright, but the reason why the figure finds its way even into public health reports in various countries is because it sheds light upon a proven fact: daily physical activity does have an impact on your overall health.

A 2015 study among 300,000 European men and women found: “The hazards of all-cause mortality were reduced by 16–30 per cent in moderately inactive individuals compared with those categorized as inactive”.

Another study by the  American Heart Association showed that previously sedentary women who began to perform daily physical activity reduced their blood pressure in just 24 weeks.

There is certainly nothing wrong with taking 10,000 steps per day – walking is, of course, much better than doing anything at all – but just counting steps ignores the imperative to raise your heart rate.

Walking at a leisurely pace isn’t very strenuous and doesn’t have a significant impact on your blood pressure. On the other hand, 30 minutes of spin class will get your heart pumping like crazy.

Nowadays, some fitness gadgets are replacing the step-counting approach with heart-rate tracking, taking into account other data such as height, weight and age to deliver more meaningful and personalized metrics. The Apple Watch, for example, records your heart rate during workouts and replaces step-counting for other information such as calorie burn.

Even more interesting is the Mio Global line of wearables, which translate your heart rate data and profile information into one number they call the PAI score. They claim that keeping your daily PAI score at 100 or higher could increase your lifespan by two years, backing up their claims with a massive longitudinal study that tracked 20 years of activity among 60,000 Norwegians.

Although the 10,000-step rule can be useful to encourage physical activity for somebody with an office-to-Netflix lifestyle, medically speaking it’s a simplistic reference. The key to improving your overall health is to get your heart to work on a regular basis (and no, watching horror films doesn’t count).

If the only physical activity you fancy is running down the pitch in FIFA, don’t fret, it’s not that difficult.

Dr Stephen Parnis, vice president of the Australian Medical Association, said, “The current recommendations for adults are to accumulate between two-and-a-half hours and five hours of moderate physical activity per week, which can be broken down to 30 to 60 minutes activity a day on five days of the week.”

Bottom line is, stand rather than sit, jog rather than walk, and try to move more than the day before. No need to count 10,000 steps.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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