10,000 steps a day: Is it necessary for better health?

10,000 steps a day: Is it necessary for better health?
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It seems everyone now has a fitness tracker, either on a wristband, as a clip-on or as part of a smartwatch or smartphone. One of the commonalities of these devices is that they buzz or vibrate when the wearer reaches 10,000 steps. As a result, 10,000 steps has become a daily goal for many. The fitness industry has perpetuated this idea without much questioning — until recently.

A recently published paper in the highly respected Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that 4,400 steps a day was strongly related to lower mortality rates when compared to 2,700 steps. As the steps increased, risk of dying decreased, until about 7,500 steps a day, when the risk benefit started to level off.

One important caveat to this study is that the researchers primarily analyzed the most severe outcome — death. Staying alive is obviously important to all of us, but many people exercise for other important reasons, such as reducing pain or other symptoms, increasing quality of life, experiencing “runner’s high” or simple enjoyment. If the researchers had included some of these outcomes, it is reasonable to expect there would have been more benefit as the steps increased.

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With this recent finding, it is now appropriate to question the merits of the 10,000-steps-a-day goal. Besides the obviously arbitrary number, there still is value to achieving the goal. If people take more steps, it means they are spending less time being sedentary. A growing body of research is finding that sitting is the new smoking, contributing to metabolic disorders, cancers and heart disease. If getting more steps can potentially prevent many common disorders and diseases, it is a simple and inexpensive way to reduce leading causes of death every year.

An additional benefit of fitness trackers is the reward feature. Over time, many people look forward to — and strive to — receive the tracker’s notification they have achieved their goal, which helps them stay motivated to be active. Lack of motivation is often cited as a reason people stop exercising. Despite the randomness of the 10,000 number, it is good to have a quantifiable goal. A hard marker — whether a buzz or vibration from a wearable device — is useful to easily determine whether or not the goal was met.

For people who are trying to start a more active lifestyle, or those who are trying to get back into a physically active routine, the 10,000-steps-a-day goal can be ambitious or a good entry point, depending on the person’s level of fitness. For those individuals who are active but looking to add a little more, adding this goal could be a good ancillary piece to improving their fitness routine.

These goals are not for everyone, however. For people who are extremely active or who have vigorous exercise routines, a 10,000-step goal is less relevant. For one, they might already be far exceeding that number, and two, quality of exercise is more important than quantity. For example, from a health and overall fitness perspective, high-intensity interval training is better than lower-intensity exercise.

There is still more research that needs to be done on this topic, including the relationship between number of steps and quality of life, which this study did not examine. Just measuring mortality does not provide any insight on how lives might be improved by using these easily accessed devices, and this would be important data to guide clinical recommendations that could dramatically improve people’s health.

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Until then, the take home-message is clear: there is little downside to people being more active, and something as simple as just getting more steps each day can have a dramatic impact on extending and improving life. Walking the dog, taking a family walk in the park, or opting for the staircase over the elevator are all easy ways to add more steps. And new gadgets aren’t even necessary, since most smartphones can track steps anyway.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving quality of life and fitness, if tracking steps encourages more exercise and movement, then its importance cannot be downplayed. 

William S. Yancy Jr., M.D., is the director of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center; Jared Rosenberg is an exercise physiologist at the center.