You've probably heard that you need to move more throughout the day, and as a general rule of thumb, "more" is often defined as around 10,000 steps. As more people track their steps via fitness-tracking wearables or their iPhones, more of them use the 10,000-step rule as their marker for healthy living.
But while sitting less is a great idea, the step rules isn't as black and white as one number.
Where did that number come from, anyway?
Dr. Greg Hager, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins, decided to take a closer look at that 10,000-step rule, and he found that using it as a standard may be doing more harm than good for some — and not enough good for others.
"Turns out in 1960 in Japan they figured out that the average Japanese man, when he walked 10,000 steps a day burned something like 3,000 calories and that is what they thought the average person should consume so they picked 10,000 steps as a number," Hager said in his presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
According to Hager, asking everyone to shoot for 10,000 steps each day could be harmful to the elderly or those with medical conditions that make it unwise for them to jump into that level of exercise, even if it's walking. He also noted that those with shorter legs have an easier time hitting the 10,000 step goal because they have to take more steps than longer-legged people to cover the distance. The bottom line is that 10,000 steps may be too many for some and too few for others.
Some of that has to do with age. A more recent study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, focused on older women and how many steps can help maintain good health and promote longevity. The study included nearly 17,000 women with an average age of 72.
Researchers found that women who took 4,400 steps per day were about 40% less likely to die during a follow-up period of just over four years, compared to women who took 2,700 steps. Women in the study who walked more than 7,500 steps each day got no extra boost in longevity, but there were other benefits. But again, the benefits vary greatly, especially when you take age into consideration. For example, a separate study conducted at Brigham Young University looking at college freshmen showed that steps alone weren't enough to keep the dreaded freshman 15 — weight gain during the first year of college — at bay. For that group, exercise alone didn't keep weight down; it had to be combined with eater fewer calories to have that effect.
The point of these studies isn't to say we should abandon step goals and fitness trackers altogether; it's great that more people are paying attention to how much they move their bodies each day. But the key is finding the step goal that matches your individual health. That might mean having a conversation with your doctor, physical therapist or fitness instructor and then using your fitness tracker to help you achieve those goals — not trying to achieve some blanket goal set by your tracker.
What we can learn from the serious walkers
Researchers looked at postal workers in Glasgow, Scotland, contrasting the difference between those who delivered mail and those who had office jobs. The office workers had higher BMIs, bigger waists and more blood sugar and cholesterol issues than those who walked significantly more, and that's even after scientists adjusted for age, sex, family history and other factors known to impact health.
The biggest differences appeared when the researchers looked at mail carriers who walked at least 15,000 steps per day, which is the equivalent of about seven miles. They had normal waistlines, BMIs and metabolic profiles, meaning they showed no increased risk at all for heart disease. The results were published in the International Journal of Obesity.
The study looked at a small group of people, but it may be motivation enough — for those who are healthy enough — to up your walking game to 15,000 steps, researchers say.
"It takes effort," Dr. William Tigbe, lead author and public health researcher at the University of Warwick told The New York Times. People can get 15,000 steps a day by walking briskly for two hours a day, he says.
But you don't have to do it all at once, he points out. Try 30-minute walks in the morning and at lunch and short 10-minute breaks throughout the day.
Do it your way
If you're trying to improve your health, and if your doctor gives you the go-ahead, there's a better way to use your fitness tracker to achieve your goal. First, wear your tracker for one week to set your personalized baseline for the number of steps you take each day. Then, according to the Mayo Clinic, you can try to increase that benchmark by around 1,000 daily steps every two weeks. So, for example, if you're currently walking 3,000 steps each day, you should aim for 4,000 steps daily and keep that up for two weeks before setting another, higher goal.
Fitness trackers are excellent tools that can help you set and reach goals to improve your fitness. Just be sure that you're making those trackers work for you by choosing step goals that match your health and fitness needs.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in February 2017 and has been updated with new information.