Should you join the tribe of 10,000 steps?
Posted August 11, 2016
In the 1960s, a Japanese watchmaker created a pedometer he called the "10,000 step meter" and told users they should take that many steps every day to better their health.
It took nearly 50 years, but the Japanese craze eventually crossed the ocean, and now about 1 in 5 Americans use technology to measure their steps, a trend applauded by health officials.
The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society tout 10,000 steps as a goal, as does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alternative medicine guru Joseph Mercola endorses it. Even Oprah Winfrey, who has run marathons, has succumbed to the craze.
But if counting steps is helping people shed pounds, it hasn't shown up in the latest health statistics. In a report released Aug. 3, the National Center for Health Statistics said the average American man now weighs 15 pounds more than he did 20 years ago; the average woman, 16 pounds more.
Moreover, there is evidence that, for many users, step-trackers are a fad that fizzles quickly. One study showed one-third of people stop using fitness trackers within six months after buying one, even though it can take more than eight months before a new habit is ingrained, according to a 2009 study in the United Kingdom.
Researchers, however, remain enthusiastic and note that the newest wave of step-measuring technology is only about five years old (the first Fitbit was released late in 2009), and the impact of the devices has yet to be felt.
"I think everyone should wear one. They build awareness and help people understand their behavior," said Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and chair of the kinesiology department there.
Tudor-Locke, who researches electronic behavior tracking, physical activity and obesity, says although the optimal number varies among people, wearables are proven to increase activity in users. And it doesn't matter if they collect dust on a shelf because sporadic use helps, too, she said.
The path to 10,000
For the obsession with 10,000 steps, credit (or blame) Yamasa Tokei, a Japanese watch-making company.
In 1965, it introduced a pedometer called the Manpokei — or “10,000-step-meter," capitalizing on research that showed the average person took just 3,500 to 5,000 steps a day.
Yamasa's new device had a motto — "Let's all walk 10,000 steps a day!" — and the Japanese heeded the advice, joining walking clubs all over the country. Today, the average Japanese household owns two step-monitoring devices, and the nation's obesity rate is about 5 percent. (The Yamasa company is still in business and has expanded its product line to include pedometers for dogs.)
Ten thousand steps are the equivalent of roughly 5 miles, which a reasonably fit person can cover in about 1 hour,15 minutes by walking briskly or jogging slowly.
Step-counting programs promise improvements in health and fitness by helping users cover the same amount of ground in increments throughout the day, and they make little distinction as to the level of exertion.
The U.S. government, however, does. Its guidelines for physical activity in adults advises 2 1/2 hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, performed in increments of at least 10 minutes, spread throughout the week.
Still, in a 2008 study evaluating 10,000-step programs, Tudor-Locke, of the University of Massachusetts, said that 7,500 to 10,000 steps was a marker "gaining credibility as evidence continues to accumulate that health benefits can be realized within this level."
Children, however, need more — around 12,000 steps per day — because they're naturally active, she said.
How counting helps
The average American adult takes about 5,000 to 6,000 steps a day, well below countries like Switzerland (9,650) and Japan (7,168) — unless they're Amish and shun modern transportation. Amish men average 18,000 steps per day.
If you take fewer than 5,000 steps every day, you can consider yourself sedentary, health experts say.
But until a person straps on a monitoring device, most have no idea where they fall in the spectrum. Studies have shown that people underestimate how much time they spend sitting and overestimate how much time they're in motion.
Self-monitoring, once seen as a punishment, is now seen as "critical for success with lifestyle changes," according to the Obesity Action Coalition, a Tampa-based nonprofit that recommends food diaries, exercise logs and regular weighing in addition to step counters.
Pedometers are especially effective because once people have a baseline number, they're naturally inclined to want to increase it. And to increase it, at some point, they'll have to walk not only farther, but faster, Tudor-Locke said.
“By the time you get to very large numbers – and 10,000 is a large number – you see that you don’t get that puttering back and forth,” she said.
That was the experience of Kaylah Doolan, a 26-year-old blogger in Cleveland, who bought a Fitbit in April.
"I thought it would be something I was into for a month or so then would grow out of, but I still really love this thing," she said.
"I consistently get at least 10,000 steps, but normally aim for 11,500 or 12,000 just because I'm competitive with myself," she said.
Since getting the device, Doolan has started walking the 3 miles from her home to work instead of taking the train. "I've shaved about 20 minutes off my walk since I started. I don't weigh myself ever, but I feel better about myself. Regardless if I've actually lost any weight or not, my confidence is up," she said.
Dr. Donna Arnett, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Public Health and former president of the Heart Association, has used a step tracker for four years and gone from below 10,000 steps to an average of 13,500 each day.
“The idea is not that 10,000 is a magic number, but it’s attention to the detail of how active or sedentary you are that’s motivating people,” she said.
“Even mild levels of activity improve blood pressure and insulin levels,” she added.
But step trackers won't necessarily help people lose weight.
"Without dietary changes, one could easily be taking 10,000 steps a day and not lose weight, and might even gain weight. As many diet and exercise experts say, 'You can't outrun your fork','' said Kristen Sullivan of Atlanta, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.
High-end step counters can cost hundreds of dollars, but Tudor-Locke said a "good, standard workhorse" of a device can be found for $20-$50. For people who already have them, Tudor-Locke said the most important thing is to keep increasing your goal.
“Ten thousand is good; 12,500 is even better. There is no exact number where the sky parts and the angels sing. It’s all approximate; just shoot for more than before,” she said.