How Many Steps Should You Actually Be Walking Every Day?

Ph.D. in Health Policy By Robert J. Davis, MPH, Ph.D.
Ph.D. in Health Policy
Robert J. Davis, MPH, Ph.D., is the author of Fitter Faster: The Smart Way to Get in Shape in Just Minutes a Day (AMACOM) with Brad Kolowich Jr. He is an award-winning health journalist whose work has appeared on CNN, PBS, WebMD, and in the Wall Street Journal.
How Many Steps Should You Actually Be Walking Every Day?

Photo by Micky Wiswedel

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Thanks to perfect early summer temperatures and lower-intensity fitness, walking is having a moment. But as people ditch their boot camp class to walk to work, one question keeps coming up: How much should we really be walking? Is it 10,000 steps? Or 15,000, as new research shows?

You've probably most commonly heard that walking 10,000 steps per day is ideal—and it’s not unusual to see followers of this directive constantly checking their fitness trackers in hopes of achieving the "magic number" and quickly announcing it to everyone within earshot.

Certainly anything that gets people to move more is laudable. But it turns out that the 10,000-steps-a-day guideline is overly simplistic and based more around marketing than sound science. The concept originated in the 1960s with a Japanese manufacturer of a pedometer called manpo-kei, which translates to "10,000 steps meter." In fact, it is thought that the number 10,000 was chosen because of its exalted status in Japanese culture.

What the research actually shows.

Research shows that getting fewer than 5,000 steps per day equates to being sedentary, and that adding 3,000 to this baseline, for a total of 8,000 steps, is enough to meet the standard exercise recommendations for healthy adults.

But there are two key requirements. The first is that the 3,000 additional steps need to be taken at a relatively brisk pace of at least 100 per minute, and the second is that they need to be done in increments of at least 10 minutes.

If you don't meet both of these conditions, you could be falling short, even if you get 10,000 steps. For example, in a study of people who had osteoarthritis of the knee or were at high risk for it, more than 75 percent of those who walked at least 10,000 steps a day failed to meet the exercise guidelines.

On the other hand, if you walk briskly and in spurts of 10 minutes or longer, fewer than 10,000 steps may suffice. Whatever the number, try to increase it by setting progressively higher goals for yourself. And for extra credit, use stairs whenever possible. Whether you’re going up or down, you burn more calories per minute than you do while walking on flat ground.

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About those fitness trackers.

Speaking of burning calories, don’t count on your fitness tracker to give you an accurate calorie reading. In a study of four popular devices, two worn on the wrist and two on the hip, the trackers overestimated calories burned during walking and jogging. As for step counts, the numbers are more believable: Research shows that fitness trackers, as well as smartphone apps and simple pedometers, are generally accurate at counting steps.

While many people find that tracking steps with these devices motivates them to be active, you don't need to do so to stay fit. If you’re not into counting steps, just try to move as much as you can, for a total of at least 30 minutes on most days. That will probably get you a lot farther than you think.

Based on excerpts from Fitter Faster: The Smart Way To Get In Shape In Just Minutes A Day by Robert J. Davis, with permission of AMACOM. Copyright © 2017.

Need motivation to walk more? Find out why slow fitness is having a moment, and read up on why walking is the best thing you can do for your health.

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