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The 10,000 Steps Myth – You Really Need Much Less

Fitness trackers are insanely popular. According to Fortune Business Insights, each year people spend more than $36 billion on these wearable devices around the world. Within the next six years, that’s expected to grow to more than $114 billion. I’m excited by the incredible growth in this industry, which shows that people are making exercise and movement more of a priority in their lives. Having a fitness tracking device, like a Fitbit or Apple Watch, which of course also do many other things, is a constant reminder on your wrist to reach your daily health goals that isn’t easy to ignore.

Using one is a great way to track your steps. For many years I’ve heard and read on the internet recommendations that people should take 10,000 steps a day. It’s always been stated as an indisputable fact. When I hear people make a statement about the health effects of doing something, the doctor and scientist in me thinks, “show me the data.” I never thought it was a bad recommendation. I just wasn’t sure it was true. Where were the studies that proved it? 

An example of this is the belief that bone health dietary supplements must contain magnesium and calcium in a specific ratio. I’ve heard that repeatedly since I started NBI in 2006, and every time someone says this, I ask them to please send me the citation that shows it. Most commonly they read it on a website somewhere and when I ask if there was a study that was cited for that claim, they invariably say “No.” I scoured the literature, and in fact, there is no truth to that. 

In fact, in clinical trials that evaluated MK4 for bone health and showed improvements in bone mineral density and decrease in fractures up to 80%, the only other nutrients used were calcium and vitamin D. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of magnesium, but it’s simply not true that it’s required to get such impressive bone-building results. When you look at the research into osteoporosis supplements and what really works, magnesium doesn’t make the list. 

When I heard about the 10,000 steps per day rule, I did what I often do—I looked for the research. At that time, and this was at several years ago, there were no studies that had evaluated the number of steps people took every day. Even though the clinical trials simply hadn’t been done, somehow in people’s minds 10,000 steps per day was a proven fact. But the magic 10,000-steps-a-day number wasn’t real.

Three recent studies tested this assumption. In a clinical trial published in September 2021, they looked at the risk for death in more than 2110 volunteers they followed for nearly 11 years. During that time, they tracked the number of steps they took and how vigorously they walked (the intensity). What they found was that people who took 7,000-10,000 steps per day had a 50-70% decreased risk for dying from any cause compared to those who took less than 7,000 steps per day. Taking more than 10,000 steps was not associated with greater benefits.1 Another study showed again that more isn’t necessarily better. They confirmed that taking around 7,000 steps per day is associated with decreased risk for dying, but there wasn’t any increased benefit for people taking 12,000 steps.2

But 7,000-10,000 steps is a big range. Is there an ideal number of steps that gives the greatest benefit? Fortunately for us, another set of researchers asked this question. They discovered that the health benefit plateaued at 7,500 steps per day.3 

For me, these studies were a breath of fresh air. I feel like taking 7,000-7,500 steps a day is certainly something I can do. The 10,000-step goal always felt a bit overwhelming to me. So how far is 7,000 steps? People take about 2,000 is a mile, so 7,000 steps would be about 3.5 miles a day. 

The beautiful thing is that all the steps you take during the day accumulate to help you reach your goal. While you can carve out a specific block of time to get them in, you don’t have to. Add steps to your day by parking farther from the entrances of stores, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, pacing or going for a walk around the block while on a phone call, or taking your dog for a walk. And if you want to know how you’re doing, use a step tracker app on your smartphone or buy a separate fitness tracker and get those 7,000 steps in a day. 

And the next time someone says you that you need to take 10,000 steps a day, point them to this blog so they can learn the truth too. 

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References

1Paluch AE, Gabriel KP, Fulton JE, et al. Steps per Day and All-Cause Mortality in Middle-aged Adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study. JAMA Network Open. 2021;4(9):e2124516-e2124516.

2Saint-Maurice PF, Troiano RP, Bassett DR, Jr., et al. Association of Daily Step Count and Step Intensity With Mortality Among US Adults. Jama. 2020;323(12):1151-1160.

3Lee I-M, Shiroma EJ, Kamada M, Bassett DR, Matthews CE, Buring JE. Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2019;179(8):1105-1112.

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