Your 10,000 steps a day goal appears to be built on bad science

Where did the 10,000 steps figure come from? [Photo: Getty]
Where did the 10,000 steps figure come from? [Photo: Getty]

Want to get fit? You know the drill. 10,000 steps a day should keep you on the healthy straight and narrow.

Like eating five portions of fruit and veg a day, the 10,000 step rule has become part of the stay-healthy gospel.

You can barely walk down the street without someone marching past checking their steps and by 2020 it is estimated that there will be 500m wearables keeping track of our daily stomps.

But, according to The Guardian research is increasingly finding that 10K steps is actually an arbitrary figure based on bad science. Oh.

So, where did the figure come from?

The idea that we should be clocking up 10,000 steps actually began in Japan in the mid-60s. But far from being a carefully researched figure, it was actually the result of a marketing campaign designed to capitalise on the Tokyo Olympics.

The company Yamasa designed the world’s first wearable step-counter, a device called a manpo-kei, which literally translates as “10,000-step meter”.

But according to Prof David Bassett, head of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies at the University of Tennessee, there wasn’t any scientific basis for the figure.

“They just felt that was a number that was indicative of an active lifestyle and should be healthy,” he told The Guardian.

But while organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the American Heart Foundation have also adopted the 10,000 steps as a daily activity recommendation, experts have started to question whether it is really the optimum number.

Earlier this year, Public Health England (PHE) and the Royal College of GPs said focusing on time, rather than distance or quantity of steps, can reduce the risk of early death by up to 15%.

Official new advice revealed that focussing on a brisk 10-minute walk is just as beneficial for your health.

The official recommendation is for adults to carry out at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week.

This has been linked to health benefits including a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Should we still be aiming for 10,000 steps [Photo: Getty]marie
Should we still be aiming for 10,000 steps [Photo: Getty]marie

The new guidance followed a criticism by a leading computer scientist of apps that set users step rather than time targets.

According to Dr Greg Hager, from Johns Hopkins University in the US step counting apps could be driving people to chase over-ambitious goals.

He said “very few” of the estimated 165,000 available healthcare apps are based on scientific evidence.

Interestingly it was recently revealed that Google Fit has decided to remove the step goal completely from the health and fitness platform in its latest update.

Instead, the app will encourage users to focus more on the amount of time they spend a day exercising, rather than the number of steps that they complete.

It follows an investigation by medical journalist Michael Mosley with Professor Rob Copeland for BBC One documentary The Truth About Getting Fit which found doing short bursts of “moderate to vigorous” exercise on a daily basis is more beneficial than achieving 10,000 steps a day, despite consisting of less physical activity overall.

What’s more there are concerns that for some people, who are not used to carrying out vigorous exercise or who are chronically ill, making a rapid jump to 10,000 steps a day could have negative consequences on health.

For others, the daily goal may seem intimidating and can have the opposite intention of increasing daily activity.

The 10,000 step rule also doesn’t take into consideration the intensity of the movement.

So should we all just be silencing our Fitbits and settling down for a night on the sofa?

Not quite.

WHO recommends that adults aged between 18 and 64 do at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise a week, which works out to be just over 20 minutes of exercise every day.

Bearing all that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to focus more on your weekly physical activity rather than how many steps you did walking to Starbucks and back.

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