If you're falling short of 10,000 steps

People who start tracking their steps might be discouraged to find that they’re nowhere near 10,000 daily steps, the commonly accepted goal.

Before I got a Fitbit device, I thought that a half-hour brisk walk on most days was enough aerobic exercise. My weekly total exceeded the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise recommended by the government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans

Fitbit, which tracks “active zone” exercise as well as total steps, punctured my complacency. It told me that my daily walk logs just 2,500 to 3,000 steps. That leaves more than 7,000 steps to get to 10,000, a hard thing to do on days when my other steps are mostly between a chair and the kitchen. The only days I’ve exceeded 10,000 steps were when I gave a Chicago Greeter tour or had a destination more than a mile from home. The last week’s average was 7,500 steps a day.

To ward off discouragement, I questioned the 10,000-steps goal and found, happily, that it was a product of marketing rather than science. A Japanese company in 1965 came out with a pedometer whose name translated to “10,000 steps meter.” Although the number had no medical basis, it became popular with walkers and manufacturers of fitness trackers. It’s the default goal on my Fitbit.

If 10,000 isn’t a magic number, is there one? Research has found that fewer steps, around 7,500 a day, is an acceptable goal for living longer, at least for people my age. A 2019 study found that longevity improved with more daily steps until around 7,500, when the benefit plateaued. 

The authors, from Harvard Medical School, studied almost 17,000 women averaging 72 years old who wore tracking meters for four years. “A goal of 10,000 steps a day is commonly believed by the public to be necessary for health, but this number has limited scientific basis. With more steps per day, mortality rates progressively decreased before leveling at approximately 7,500 steps a day,” the report published in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded. 

What a nice coincidence that my daily average is around 7,500 steps. But while that threshold may be good enough for health, it’s not going to help me lose the 15 pounds I’ve been wishing for years to shed. Unfortunately, 10,000 steps probably would not either. Research into how much exercise is needed to lose weight has not had consistent findings, but many studies have shown that weight loss seldom happens from moderate exercise alone. Although 300 or more minutes of exercise a week have helped some people drop pounds, others report that significant exercise increases their appetites, counteracting the weight loss. Dietary changes are usually needed to lose weight. Maybe I should use Fitbit’s food log to count calories. 

I decided not to reset the Fitbit’s 10,000-steps goal downward. The tracker was intended for motivation, not reassurance that I’m already doing fine. As the Mayo Clinic Health News Letter says, “There’s no downside to getting 10,000 steps every day, or even more.” Reaching 10,000 steps consistently would boost my ego. And on the days that are under 10,000 but over 7,500, I needn’t feel discouraged. 

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  • What a relief!

  • Thanks for commenting, JoAnn.

  • Thanks, Marianne. I don't have a Fitbit, but this makes me feel better about missing one. I will do what makes me feel better.

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