by Caitlin Mari V. Oliveros, PT, PF1, BSPTS1
People claim that 10,000 steps are an indicator of good physical fitness and longevity. But does this number really matter? Or are we getting caught up in counting?
This idea originated in Japan in the 1960s, when a pedometer company named its product the “10,000 steps meter” (at least in translation). Since then, this number has stuck as an associated measure of fitness all over the world. It is a measurable goal that many people use as a baseline number to reach in their daily walking steps.
What happens to your body when you take 10,000 steps daily?
While everyone’s body is different, some people note the following benefits when walking: fat loss, increased stamina, improved blood pressure, and reduced incidence of conditions like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and/or diabetes. Additionally, other benefits may include improved mental clarity, a state of relaxation, and better sleep quality. From a physical therapy standpoint, walking allows for more movement. This, in turn, allows for improved blood flow; lubrication of joints; and general mobility & strengthening all at once. I think of walking as the oil that keeps the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz going– otherwise, you may end up stiff and rusty (perhaps even in pain).
Is getting 10,000 steps a day really necessary?
Realistically, 10,000 steps a day is not achievable for everyone. Fitness levels, pain, age, physical limitations/conditions, and even personal desire are some factors to consider when setting a goal for one’s daily steps. You would not expect a person recovering from recent knee surgery to attain 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy– in fact, this may do more harm to them than good. Work or personal schedules may also get in the way of attaining such a high number. A mother to newborn twins may not achieve all her steps when she is recovering from postpartum fatigue AND catering to her babies, but this does not mean she is “unfit”. Modification to lower numbers or a completely different unit of measurement (such as by distance or time) may be more beneficial to some individuals. Movement is fulfilling when it brings you joy and is accessible to your lifestyle.
How does age affect the 10,000-step goal?
Someone’s step intake should be as unique as they are. In general, most adults should aim for at least 3,000 steps a day to avoid being sedentary. Children, due to their playful nature, tend to exceed 10,000 steps naturally. There are no formal limitations on age when it comes to making 10,000 steps a goal. More important than age are physical ability and overall good health. If the activity does more harm than good to a person, a modification will be necessary.
What is commonly overlooked when attempting to achieve this daily goal?
The allure of reaching 10,000 steps is its positive relation to good health. From experience working with clients and other people in the fitness industry, I’ve noticed counting steps tends to negatively impact mindfulness and joyful movement.
I had a friend who became obsessed with the numbers– she would constantly check her Apple Watch and aimlessly walk in small circles while waiting for her Uber. I knew it was bad when she would associate a “bad day” with reaching less than 10k steps– she would call herself “lazy” or “weak”! In a way, the 10k goal took a toll on her mindset and awareness in exchange for her fitness.
This is why I take what I call “intentional walks” daily. The way I measured these walks has changed over time– it used to be counting steps daily, then to a monthly step goal, then to following my intuition (I walk for however short or long I want to). I use my walks to listen to my favorite music, observe changes in nature, or spend quality time with a loved one. Walking has become a therapeutic part of my day that I genuinely enjoy. In turn, almost effortlessly, my body and mind both feel stronger and whole. Our bodies tend to know how much movement we need, and tuning into your body and listening to its cues can help you find more joy and balance than counting your steps ever will.