Over the years, the popularity of wrist-worn fitness trackers has exploded and inspired an entire generation of step counters who strive for the magic 10,000 a day.
Most fitness trackers such as the Fitbit or Apple Watch will encourage users to take the 10,000 step challenge, which is not surprising in the least considering the recommendation was born out of a marketing campaign to promote the world-first pedometer.
“At the time, [Japanese] researchers determined that the average person took 3500-5000 steps per day,” accredited exercise physiologist Brendan Cummins told The New Daily.
“Dr Yoshiro Hatano and his team determined that walking 10,000 steps per day meant burning a 20 per cent of caloric intake through activity, which meant an extra 500 calories expenditure per day.
“This led to the first pedometer devices being manufactured, and they were called ‘Manpo-kei’ or the 10,000 steps measure.”
Since then, this seemingly arbitrary figure has turned into much more than marketing gold. Many published studies have gone on to show the benefits of the 10,000-step message in promoting physical activity.
Fitness trackers provide many people with that extra bit of motivation when it’s needed most, and some official health groups such as the Heart Foundation have embraced this basic premise by incorporating step counting into their healthy living message.
One study, cited by the World Health Organisation (WHO), found research participants walked more when recommended to take 10,000 steps a day compared to those who were advised to take a 30-minute walk.
Some studies have gone further and shown a link between the number of steps we take (or don’t take) and actual health outcomes.
“Achieving 10,000 steps is a good goal, with several studies showing that achieving this figure reduces all sorts of health risks, including depression” Mr Cummins said.
“Sitting time or being sedentary for too long without breaks is a big health risk, irrespective of ‘formal’ activity levels.”
An Australian study found women who achieved more than 7500 steps per day had a 50 per cent lower prevalence of depression than women taking less than 5000 steps per day (proving an association between the two factors, rather than cause-and-effect).
Another study in postmenopausal women found that the research participants who took up to 10,000 steps had significantly lower BMI than women who took fewer than 5000 steps a day.
But given its marketing origins, the 10,000 figure has been questioned by some health experts and scientists. In June, UK public health official Mike Brannan said the target “is believed to come from a pedometer manufacturer in Japan” and that “there’s no health guidance that exists,” he told reporters.
Dr Ben Ewald from the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Newcastle said that most people would still benefit from increasing their daily steps, regardless of the count.
“A good target for a health benefit is 2000 steps or 4000 steps more than what they’re currently doing,” he told The New Daily.
“If someone is currently only doing 4000 steps a day, if they can push that up to 6000 steps a day that’s a benefit.
“For young otherwise healthy active people, 10,000 steps is a good target. If they can get to 12,000 steps that would be even better for them.”
His research has found that people could cut the time they spend in hospitals by walking an extra 4300 steps, or the equivalent of three kilometres, per day. Published in the Medical Journal of Australia, the research involving people aged 55 and over showed that annual hospital days dropped by 9 per cent for every 1000 extra daily steps.
“The step counter baseline reduces their chance of ending up in hospital and needing hospital care over the subsequent 10 years,” he said.
“We also did some analysis of whether there was any threshold in which step counters start to make a difference, and that turned out to be a bit variable depending on which health outcome you were looking at, such as cholesterol level, body weight, glucose levels.”
Dr Ewald said some health outcomes improved when the number of steps increased up to 15,000 per day. However, other benefits plateaued once someone reached 8000 steps.
Adding to this complexity are some other factors. First, the 10,000 rule does not factor in exercise intensity. Walking on a flat surface might have different health outcomes to huffing and puffing up and down a hill over the same number of steps.
Second, not all devices read the same – although the technology is improving.
“Some devices can give you twice as many steps, and 10,000 on a Fitbit is not necessarily the same as 10,000 on a waist-worn pedometer,” Dr Ewald said.
Mr Cummins acknowledged that there were variations in activity tracking device accuracy, “but not enough to suggest they are not worth an investment”.
Finally, walking and running are not for everyone.
For example, people who have knee or joint pain may be better off shifting their energy to other aerobic exercises such as cycling or swimming, Dr Ewald said.
Overall, he stressed that maintaining an adequate level of physical activity was more important than obsessing over a particular figure.
“What I tell people is to do the type of exercise that they enjoy, and that they’ll keep on doing,” Dr Ewald said.
“If they just do it for a week or a month, that’s not beneficial. It should be a lifelong habit. If people like swimming, they should get swimming. If they hate swimming, there’s no point telling them they should be swimming.”