Do We Really Need to Take 10,000 Steps a Day for Our Health?

By E. Dylan Mayer

If you are into personal fitness and have ever used a fitness tracking device or app, chances are you’ve heard that taking 10,000 steps per day is recommended. Have you ever asked yourself, who came up with this number? Interestingly this number is not based on science.

Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard, and an expert on step counts and health, claims that the 10,000-step target became popular in Japan during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. A clock maker mass-produced a pedometer with a name that translated to “10,000-steps meter”. This name, he believes, became rooted in the fitness industry, and therefore in our fitness trackers.

What Does the Science Say?

10,000 steps, or ~5 miles, takes the average human 1:15 – 1:30 minutes, and I can assure you that the vast majority of Americans do not meet that number, nor even half of it. According to recent estimates, most adults in North America and other Western nations average fewer than 5,000 steps per day. A 2019 study from Dr. Lee and her team found that women in their 70s who managed as few as 4,400 steps per day, reduced their risk of premature death by ~40%, compared to women completing 2,700 steps or fewer per day. The risk for premature death continued to drop for women walking more than 5,000 steps per day, but these benefits topped out at 7,500 daily steps. This study included a sample size of over 16,500 US women who agreed to participate by wearing an accelerometer during waking hours for 7 days between 2011 and 2015.

Another study looking at both women and men also found that 10,000 steps per day are not required for longevity. In this 2020 study, 4,840 participants aged 40 and older wore accelerometers for 7 days. The researchers found that those who walked for 8,000 steps per day were about half as likely to die prematurely from heart disease or any other cause as those who walked 4,000 steps. However, those who passed 8,000 steps per day were not negatively impacted, but rather the extra steps did not provide a statistically significant difference from those who only had 8,000 steps per day.

While the 10,000-step count may not be completely science-backed, getting outside (or onto a treadmill), and getting your 7,500 – 8,000 steps in per day is definitely manageable for the majority of people, and can do nothing but benefit your health. Unfortunately, the current guidelines in the United States state (at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, which would come out to ~16,000 steps per week, or ~2,500 steps per day) is far below where we see substantial health benefits. Perhaps that is a reason why the US obesity prevalence was 42.4% in 2017-2018 and undoubtedly increased since then; but let’s save that topic for another article.

E. Dylan Mayer is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a major in Neuroscience and a minor in Business. He is fascinated by the connections between the health of the planet, the soil, the food that we eat and our own health.