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How Many Steps a Day is Best?

Hint: It's not 10,000, but the answer depends on what your goal is

How Many Steps a Day is Best?

Last week, I got a question: “I hear a lot about 10,000 steps per day and the benefits of this. Is there scientific proof that 10,000 is a good goal, or does it vary based on age, etc? Curious of your thoughts or if you have any insight into this.”

Let’s dive in.

Why 10,000 Steps?

In the 1960s, a Japanese doctor named Yoshiro Hatano estimated that the average Japanese citizen walked just 3,500 to 5,000 steps daily. He worried that inactivity was hurting the health of Japanese citizens, and he suggested that everyone should double their level of physical activity. But how do you actually know if you’ve done that? You need to measure it.

Enter Yomasa Tokei. He was a watchmaker who saw an opportunity in Dr. Hatano’s recommendation. He took the shell of an everyday pocket watch but tweaked its internal parts and function. His watch no longer counted time, it counted steps.

He called this invention Manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000 steps meter.” The device took off. Walking clubs popped up around Japan, with members all using the 10,000 steps meter to get to at least 10,000 steps each day.

The number worked for a lot of reasons. It was round. It was memorable. It had five figures, which felt better than four figures. And hitting it required extra walking, but not so much that people felt like professional walkers.

So the number stuck. It’s become the standard recommendation for how many steps we should take daily.

Is 10,000 Steps Backed By Science?

Before answering that question, we have to account for how scientists generally think of steps and health.

The average American gets between 4,000 and 6,000 steps a day, depending on which study you read. That means some people get far more than 4,000 to 6,000 a day, but some get far less. For example, the average Amish man takes 18,425 steps, while the average waiter gets around 22,778. On the other hand, many Americans walk just 2,000 steps a day.

Scientists care most about those sedentary people. That’s because the most sedentary people have the highest disease risk and present the largest burden to our medical system. It saves more lives and prevents more suffering to ask questions that can help these people.

With that in mind, scientists want to know two things about step counts. First, what amount of steps is so low that it’s dangerous? Second, what minimum number of steps allows people to remain healthy?

The reason we ask these two questions is so that we can identify the people most at risk and then give them a reasonable goal to meet to improve their health.

What Amount of Steps is so Low That it’s Dangerous?

The answer to this question seems to be any step count below 5,000. The lower the number, the worse the outcomes. For example, one study found that people who took fewer than 5,000 steps a day had “substantially higher” prevalence of heart disease, the number one killer of Americans. Another found that people who fell below the 5k number had a significantly higher risk of depression.

But the good news is that if you currently get fewer than 5,000 steps, each extra step you take is powerful. For example, older women who got 4,400 steps a day had an elevated risk of dying during the study period. But they were better off than women who logged just 2,700 steps. The women who hit 4,400 steps had a 41 percent lower risk of dying.

Which leads to the second question …

What’s the Minimum Number of Steps that Allows People to Remain Healthy?

To answer the reader’s main question, I’ll quote a study in JAMA. The scientists wrote, “A goal of 10,000 steps per day is promoted widely, but evidence for this goal is limited.” Ten thousand is great, but we can probably get fewer than that and stay healthy.

Some studies say the minimum ideal dose is 8,000 steps. Some say 7,000. So let’s just say it’s somewhere around 7,500 steps.

For example, that same study on older women found that the women with the lowest risk of death got 7,500 or more steps a day. Interestingly enough, those who got far more than 7,500 weren’t any better off.

Other studies show getting at least 7,500 significantly lowers our risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes, and more. That number seems to be a sweet spot where we reduce our risk in the least amount of time.

Is Getting More than 7,500 Steps a Day Better?

I think so.

Even though some studies suggest that going above 7,500 steps doesn't offer more protection, others do. On balance, a more active person is more likely to be healthier than a less active person. Fitness is a hedge against sickness.

For example, a study in JAMA found that getting 8,000 steps per day led to a 51% lower risk of death compared to getting 4,000. Which is good—but not as good as getting 12,000 steps. The people who hit that number had a 65% lower risk.

So more is better. But the catch, as we can see in the study above, is that there is a rate of diminishing returns. For example, going from 2,000 to 4,000 steps a day might cut your risk of heart disease in half. But going from 15,000 to 17,000 might drop it by a percent or two, if at all. But that slight edge wouldn’t just apply to heart disease. It would apply to all sorts of diseases—add up enough slight edges, and you likely have a significant edge.

We see this in the real world. People with the lowest risk of chronic disease in the world—various hunter-gatherer tribes—tend to all get around 20,000 daily steps. They, of course, have other things going for them, like diets mostly devoid of junk food. But I feel safe saying that 15,000 to 20,000 steps a day is probably a historically “regular,” optimal level of human activity.

Of course, hitting that number today can present practical problems, especially if you’re trying to get it all in one long ruck or run. Which is why I harp on being a 2-Percenter—make the small decision to walk every chance you can so the steps accumulate. Take a walking phone call. Park in the farthest spot. Relax with a stroll rather than by scrolling your news feed.

Final Thoughts

As you rack up more steps, don’t lose sight of the larger goal. We don’t just walk and exercise to avoid disease. We do it to live better.

I try to go on a walk every single day. It’s not just for the steps—it’s for unplugged time outside to clear my head. I probably won’t see any possible disease risk benefits from these walks until I’m old. But I can get a physical and mental boost right now, with each step.

Have fun, don’t die, step more.