Is 10,000 Really the Magical Number of Steps to Take Per Day?

Chances are, you've been told you should log 10,000 steps per day on your fitness tracker. But a new study challenged that "magical" number with surprising results.

Brock Armstrong
6-minute read
Episode #475
The Quick And Dirty
  • Increasing your steps per day and reducing your sedentary time has a positive impact on physical activity patterns but may not prevent weight gain.
  • Increasing your step count per day has an addictive quality. A human in motion tends to stay in motion.
  • It is important to our health and wellbeing that we stop thinking of movement and exercise as a way to burn calories.
  • Burning calories is just a small (and not very meaningful) part of what movement and exercise can do for us. 

There's a piece of fitness advice you've likely heard so many times by now that you assume it's scientific fact—you should strive to walk 10,000 steps every day. But where did that number come from? Are 10,000 steps really the ideal count to rack up on your pedometer daily?

When I think of this sage advice, I picture a smart group of scientists with a battery of test subjects, a bunch of treadmills, and more than one calculator. They're working feverishly to crack the code on how many steps we should all be taking per day to be healthy, fit, trim, and happy. Is that what you pictured too?

Dr. Yoshiro Hatano invented a pedometer in 1965 and named it "Manpo-kei," which translates to "10,000-step meter" in English.

Well, sadly, that's not an accurate picture. Instead, imagine a Don-Draper-style fellow in 1965 Japan doodling on a piece of paper trying to come up with a hook-y name for a new device. That device was a pedometer, invented by Dr. Yoshiro Hatano, who worked for a company called Yamesa in 1965. He (and the Japanese Mad Men who worked for Yamesa) named his new device Manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000-step meter” in English.

Now, before I throw poor Dr. Hatano under the bus, let me say this: I'm sure he wasn’t trying to perpetuate the greatest hoax ever pulled on the fitness community. He was simply trying to come up with a name for his device that would stick. And wow, did he ever succeed!

10,000 steps is a flawed fitness goal

I've said it before (in my article called 11 Common Exercise Excuses) and I'll say it again—I'm not a fan of the 10,000 step phenomenon. And not just because my vision of athletes and scientists working to crack the step-count code was dashed to pieces and replaced by an inventor looking for a catchy name.

There's nothing magical about the number 10,000, except that it roughly approximates 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

First, there's nothing magical about the number 10,000, except that it (perhaps accidentally) roughly approximates the 150 minutes of physical activity per week that your doctor may be hounding you about. Second, having that finite 10,000 step goal (or any finite step goal) gives us a reason to check "exercise" off our to-do list and hit the couch, even if we still have a spring in our step and a smile on our face and many hours of daylight left to enjoy.

No, I'm not some maniac who hates putting his feet up. But I am someone who thinks our view of exercise is seriously flawed. We need to get the notion that one .75-hour chunk of "scientifically validated" exercise time can undo 23.25 hours of being sedentary out of our heads. The sooner, the better.

I'll take it a step further, too. That notion goes hand-in-hand with the idea that we can just "burn off" poor food choices or make allowances for future poor food choices by exercising more.

In my perfect world, calorie counters would be banned from all exercise machines.

In my article called Why You Should Move Your Body More (but not to burn calories) I wrote:

In my perfect world, calorie counters would be banned from all exercise machines. Instead, I would add “number of limbs moved” or “variety of planes used” or, even better, I would add a “level of enjoyment” meter to those devices and machines instead.

The problem is that we've been brainwashed by the fitness trackers on our wrists, the screens on the gym machines, and the infographics that tell us how many jumping jacks we have to do to “burn off that treat.” Unfortunately, that brainwashing, more often than not, translates into, “I ran for half an hour, so I get to order the Double Chocolatey Chip Chunk Frappumilkshake.” Or the reverse, “I had the White Chocolate Mocha Frappuchocshake, so I have to hit the treadmill.” You know, the good-old punishment or penance workout.

Well, you can’t outrun your fork folks. And this recent paper from BYU has more evidence to prove it.

The impact of 10,000 steps on college students

The paper published in the Journal of Obesity, based on a study done at Brigham Young University, examined the effects of three progressively higher step counts on both the body weight and body composition of college students. Specifically, they looked at 120 college women, 18–22 years old, who were in their first year of college.

The goal of the study was to look at whether exceeding that seemingly magical step count of 10,000 steps per day, in 25 percent increments, would have any effect on the commonly predicted weight and fat gain in the students.

During the six-week study, the women wore pedometers for 24 hours a day to track their movement. Before the study began, the students walked approximately 9,600 steps per day on average. When the study began, they were divided into three groups. One group walked a minimum of 10,000 steps, one group walked 12,500, and the final one walked at least 15,000 steps per day. By the end of the study, the participants in the 10,000-step group averaged 11,066 steps, those in the 12,500-step group averaged 13,638 steps, and those in the 15,000-step group averaged 14,557 steps a day.

Drum roll please! At the end of the study, they all still gained weight. On average, about 1.5 kg (or 3.5 lbs.) during the study period. And no, this wasn’t a result of the study. In general, a 1 kg to 4 kg average weight gain is regularly seen during the first academic year of college, according to previous studies. You may have heard this phenomenon referred to as the “Freshman 15” which it turns out, is an exageration.

It's not all about body weight

But here's the good news. Although the women’s weight gain was not affected by increasing their steps, there was a very positive impact on physical activity patterns, which "may have other emotional and health benefits," study authors told the BYU News.

Those other emotional and health benefits (which I've outlined in many of my past articles) include improved mental health, increased bone density, higher self-esteem, improvement in energy levels, reduced risk of many diseases, clearer skin, improved memory, increased creativity, improved sleep quality, better pain management, and the list goes on. 

To my mind, a big win was that the students' sedentary time was seriously reduced in both the 12k and 15k step groups. In fact, the authors of the paper concluded that the 15k-step group reduced their daily sedentary time by as much as 77 minutes.

A human in motion tends to stay in motion. Being active is addictive!

Another big take away for me was that the students' average steps per day tended to increase throughout the study. This explains why the researchers saw that the 10,000-step group actually averaged 11,066 steps, and the 12,500-step group averaged 13,638 steps per day. I take that as proof that movement and energy only breed more of the same. Or put another way: a human in motion tends to stay in motion. Being active is addictive!

In the conclusion of the study, the authors concluded that the results suggested going progressively beyond 10,000 steps per day had a positive impact on physical activity patterns but did not prevent weight gain in freshman women. And, most importantly, lead author Bruce Bailey, professor of exercise science at BYU said “The biggest benefit of step recommendations is getting people out of a sedentary lifestyle. Even though it won’t prevent weight gain on its own, more steps are always better for you.”

Weight gain is complicated

Preventing weight gain during the freshman year (or at any stressful time in our lives) continues to be an important topic. Weight gain is accelerated during many transitional times in life, which is one of the biggest reasons why Monica Reinagel (the Nutrition Diva here on Quick and Dirty Tips) and I started the Weighless Program, and a free Weighless.Life Facebook group, to help people establish the habits and lifestyles that will allow them to get through stressful times without gaining weight.

If staying fit were truly as easy as hitting 10,000 steps, eliminating carbs (or fat or sugar), or popping a vitamin pill, the problem of weight gain and obesity would have been solved a long time ago. But the solution has many factors, and it's as nuanced as it is straightforward. We need to reset our relationship with food and movement. A good place to start is to forget the type of fitness dogma that brought us the 10,000 steps rule. I think another good place to start is to stop listening to social media influencers with products to sell and start listening to your intuition. Your inner wellness coach is a lot smarter than you think!

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.