Whether you’re new to walking or just looking for an easy way to reach your weight-loss goals, you’ve likely heard the advice you should aim for 10,000 steps a day. For most people, this translates to roughly 5 miles (depending on things like height and walking gait). It’s a nice, round number that’s easy to remember. However, it turns out 10,000 steps isn’t necessarily the holy grail for shedding pounds.
Here’s what you need to know about how the number came to be, why it isn’t for everyone and how to take a smarter approach to activity levels:
Researchers didn’t do extensive calculations to determine 10,000 steps was optimal for fitness or weight loss. In fact, the number can actually be traced back to promotional material for a pedometer that was released in Japan in the 1960s. Since then, other companies and organizations worldwide have recommended this number. However, “it lacks evidence to support it as the ‘right’ number to support fitness or overall health,” says Lauren Shroyer, senior director of product development for the American Council on Exercise.
When you’re just starting an exercise program, you may not have the confidence or ability to get anywhere near 10,000 steps (even if you go for daily walks). This lofty goal might backfire as consistently falling short of your goals may discourage you from exercising.
If you swim or cycle, those activities don’t register as steps, so your count for the day won’t accurately reflect in your activity level. Plus, if you get 10,000 steps just from walking to and from work, you may feel best when you get 15,000 or 20,000 steps per day, instead of stopping at 10,000. Ultimately, “tracking step count is highly individual and there’s no perfect number,” underscores Shroyer.
Experts recommend tracking the total amount of time you’re physically active, rather than the number of steps you take. “A more researched and quantifiable number comes from the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week to improve overall health,” says Shroyer. “This number is based in reviews of scientific literature.”
Aiming for a set number of minutes per day or week — rather than a certain number of steps per day — allows you the flexibility to move at your own pace while getting in the recommended amount of physical activity. “This promotes adherence to healthy habits and prevents injury and frustration along the way,” notes Shroyer.
You can still track your physical activity in steps if you prefer, but don’t feel like your progress is 100% dependent on reaching 10,000 steps. Eating a well-balanced diet is also an important part of the picture when it comes to weight loss and maintenance, notes Shroyer. When you’re starting out, wear your activity tracker for a few days to see what your baseline activity level is, then increase duration gradually. If you’re incorporating other forms of exercise such as strength-training, cycling or swimming, you may want to go by overall time.