Experts have been telling us for years that we need 150 minutes each week of moderate exercise. But you may also have seen claims that you should take 10,000 steps each day. That’s about 100 minutes, for an average person walking at moderate intensity.
100 minutes each day adds up to a lot more than 150 minutes per week. Why the discrepancy? And which number should we use to set our fitnes goals?
Why 10,000 steps?
The idea that we need to take 10,000 steps each day is not based on research. It comes from a marketing campaign for a pedometer developed by Dr. Yoshiro Hatano in 1965. The Japanese company that produced the pedometer came up with the name “Manpo-kei,” which literally translates as, “10,000-step meter.”
The Japanese symbol for 10,000 looks a bit like a person walking vigorously. Dr. Hatano figured that 10,000 steps, which is about 5 miles, would increase the average person’s activity level by about 20%. The Manpo-ke became popular in Japan, where walking clubs got people out and walking.
The 10,000 step idea was picked up again in Australia (where 150 minutes a week is also the official recommendation) at the beginning of the 21st century and became popular in the United States as wearables like FitBit grew in popularity. 10,000 steps is the default goal for FitBit step trackers, and a 2010 case study confirmed that people using that goal had good outcomes.
When researchers got around to checking on the number of steps that really made a difference, they got a surprise.
A 2019 study found that more steps led to better outcomes up to about 7,500 steps per day. The average sedentary person in the study took fewer than 3,000 steps per day. When they increased that to 4,000 steps, they saw some benefits. The benefits increased with more steps until they leveld off at 7,500 steps per day.
A 2021 study compared people who took 7,000 steps or more each day with those who took 10,000 or more– and with people who took fewer than 7,000 steps.
The people in the 7,000 step group lived longer than those who moved less, but the 10,000 step group didn’t do better than the 7,000 step group.
Both these studies were looking at the length of people’s lives. They didn’t consider the many other benefits of exercise. They did, however, look at the intensity of exercise. They found that people who got their 7,000 steps faster didn’t live longer. The number of steps was more important than how vigorous the exercise was.
Steps or minutes?
We know that regular exercise makes people feel better, reduces the chances of dementia, and has many other good effects besides longer life.
The research on steps does show that moving more is good for your health, no matter how intense or long-lasting the workout may be. 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise is important for your health.
But moving at all is also good for us. If you work out for half an hour, and also get up and move around frequently during the day — 7,000 steps worth — your body will thank you for it!
This isn’t an either-or situation. If you find it easier to track your steps than to set up a regular time for exercise, go for it. If you can schedule a 30-minute walk five days a week, it will be easier to rack up those 7,000 steps each day.