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In a gallant effort to create healthy habits, we frequently reduce aspects of our existence to their formulaic equivalents—a great example being the generally accepted wellness target of 10,000 steps per day. While no health expert will deny that walking a sufficient amount every day can help you live longer, the metric itself is mostly arbitrary: It was created in the 1960s by a Japanese business as a marketing tool for its pedometer, and it is not based on conclusive research. In fact, a 10,000-step-count objective ignores physiological variances between persons and other physical activity that may occur throughout the day, not to mention the unhealthy obsession with completing the target at all costs.
The theme of the most recent edition of The Well+Good Podcast is this overly inflated fondness for tracking lifestyle in terms of specific numbers—eight hours of sleep per night, eight glasses of water per day, and yes, 10,000 steps per day. Brendon Stubbs, PhD, a physiotherapist and senior lecturer at King’s College, and Amanda Paluch, PhD, a kinesiologist and assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health & Health Sciences, share a few compelling reasons for loosening up on that step-count goal—and considering overall “minutes moved” per day as an alternative health measurment—during the conversation.
When it comes to determining a healthy lifestyle, step count falls short in the following areas:
It’s worth repeating that the 10,000-step figure may be meaningless in and of itself, especially when considering the age of those undertaking the stepping. In the episode, Dr. Paluch cites a 2019 study of nearly 17,000 women, with an average age of 72, as proof that we may need fewer steps as we age; the researchers discovered that the health benefits of increasing exercise stopped off at roughly 7,500 steps for this group.
“10,000 steps isn’t going to be indicative of everyone, and it will vary by demographic.” —Dr. Amanda Paluch
In contrast, a 2020 study that tracked the steps of nearly 5,000 people with an average age of 56 for ten years found that those who took 12,000 steps had significantly lower mortality than those who took 8,000 or 4,000 steps, suggesting that we may, in fact, benefit from taking even more steps in our younger or middle years. “All of this is to imply that 10,000 steps will not be indicative of every individual and will vary depending on the population,” Dr. Paluch explains.
Given the immateriality of the exact figure, experts believe that obsessing over it may cause more harm than good. “In my experience, people can become fascinated with the number,” Dr. Stubbs explains. “For example, if they obtain 9,990 steps and believe they need to go out and do the extra 10, they will become concerned. Is it true, though, that if you take 9,990 steps, you will have a bad day or die sooner? Certainly not.”
How the health indicator of “minutes moved” can help fill in the gaps left by step counting:
Because the step-count metric is essentially a proxy for being active, which has been shown to help cut death rates, a measure of total minutes moved may be a more realistic health statistic. “The World Health Organization recommends that we engage in 150 to 300 minutes of moderate or intense physical activity each week,” Dr. Stubbs explains. “Any movement that causes you to become somewhat out of breath qualifies.”
Following these guidelines, you can track your movement in whatever method feels most comfortable for you—not just with steps, but also with exercise or any household activity that requires you to be active. “Sometimes it’s a really hectic day and I have a terribly untidy house, so I just vacuum around the house for 20 minutes and that feels like a win,” Dr. Paluch says, “and other days, I’m moving because I’m racing around with my kids.”
When it comes to any type of numeric fitness tracking (steps or minutes moved, for example), consistency is more crucial than the exact number—and some activity is always preferable than none. Dr. Stubbs references a small Japanese research of 36 patients published in 2018 that found that just 10 minutes of easy cycling improved memory performance based on brain scans and a pattern-recognition test.
We also know that even standing up during the day can have a significant impact on general health, which is why Dr. Paluch recommends gradually building up exercise momentum. She claims that doing a little bit one day makes it easy to accomplish a little bit more the following. And the easier exercise is to incorporate into your daily routine, the more likely you are to create a habit—which, after all, is the key to reaping the long-term health benefits of an active lifestyle.
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