Pedometers, Part 5: How many steps?

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Pedometers and The number of steps needed for a healthy lifestyle.  

If you buy a pedometer, smart watch, or fitness tracker like a Fitbit, chances are the device will encourage you to take 10,000 steps a day. But do you have to walk this much to be healthy?   There are many recommendations on how many steps to accomplish a healthy lifestyle and weight loss.  Is this based on research?  

As long as I can remember pedometers, I have heard the theory that you should get 10,000 steps.  This goal is referred to as the 10,000 Step Theory by many in exercise and weight loss.  Many experts agree that people should aim to walk at least 10,000 steps per day, the equivalent of walking about 5 miles, but is this fact or just a wive’s tale? 

To someone who sits all day, ten thousand steps may seem like a lot, but to someone who runs marathons, it is nothing but a portion of your daily workout.  Experts say that while 10,000 steps a day is a good number to reach, any amount of activity beyond what you’re currently doing will likely benefit your health.

pedometer

Figure 1:  Belt Pedometer

The origin of the 10,000-steps recommendation is not scientific.  The first pedometer I bought in the 80s at Radio Shack has an instruction manual that suggested 10,000 steps.  Where did this number originate?  After a significant amount of research, it appears to be imported from Japan with the first pedometers.  The amount exercise required for health is dependent on the type of training and your daily activity level.  For example, if you have a desk job and are sedentary, you will require much more exercise to obtain and maintain a healthy status.  Any activity is better than none, of course, so this could serve as a long-term goal while you reach for smaller, more easily attainable goals in the short term.

Aside from the obvious fitness tracking trends with devices, many phones now come with built-in walking apps, and basic pedometers also come relatively cheaply these days. These devices primarily use accelerometers to monitor walking movement and record them as steps.  Some of the current devices events use GPS chips to measure distance.  Activity trackers are big time business today.  At the very least, having this goal in mind and tracking your steps can be an excellent way of noting how active you are in your daily life.

I work on my feet all day, so if your job is like mine, it may be incredibly easy to get enough steps to meet the notional goal of 10,000 steps, but if you sit a desk all day, you may instead have to put in an hour getting exercise at night or before work.  I recommend that everyone get up and walk around at least 10 minutes every hour during the work day.  On weekends, you can easily meet the goal by walking an hour each day or playing a couple of games of pick-up basketball.  

Studies conducted since then suggest that people who increased their walking to 10,000 steps daily experience health benefits.

More Studies on pedometers:

  1. One study found that women who increased their step count to nearly 10,000 steps a day reduced their blood pressure in postmenopausal women[1]
  2. Another study of overweight women found that walking 10,000 steps a day improved their insulin levels and body weight[2].  
  3. Bravata found in a Stanford University study that pedometer usage results in an increase in exercise or steps[3].
  4. Another study showed a reduction in cardiovascular risks in the elderly patient with a pedometer-based exercise program[4].  It was a small but sustained reduction in risk.  
  5. Chan also showed metabolic syndrome is associated with a lower number of steps taken per day[5].  Metabolic syndrome is associated with a large waistline (increased BMI), high triglyceride levels, low HDL cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and high fasting blood sugar (Insulin resistance).  
Cheap Chinese Made Pedometer WatchCheap Chinese Made Pedometer Watch

Figure 2:  Cheap Chinese Made Pedometer Watch

Walking 10,000 steps a day is not yet an official recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, the agency recommends adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, such as brisk walking.  Thirty minutes of exercise a day is equivalent to about 2500-3500 steps for the average person.  If you add this to the normal activity average of 5,000 steps, you will have walked about 8000 steps five days a week.  Add ten more minutes per day, and you will accomplish 10,000 steps.

The Mayo Clinic recommends the use of pedometers and that people using pedometers first set short-term goals, such as taking an extra 1,000 steps daily for one week and then build up to a long-term goal such as 10,000 steps[6].

Ten thousand steps is a goal, but it is only a point of reference.  There is benefit from as little as 2000 steps so start low and work you way up to 10,000 steps.  The key point is using a pedometer has been shown to b effective at increasing exercise and reducing body mass[7].  Chan revealed that an increase in activity is also seen in those who have sedentary jobs[8].  

Why buy a pedometer?  The research is clear that it will improve your health and help motivate you to lose weight.  It does not matter what type of pedometer you buy.  They all pretty much do the same thing.  They count steps.  It is true that some will calculate distance and calories burned, but if you are not a data junk which is motivated by more information, steps may be enough for you.  In fact, for most of us, our smart phones are enough to get all of the data we need to motivate us.  

Footnotes
[1]Moreau et al., “Increasing Daily Walking Lowers Blood Pressure in Postmenopausal Women.”
[2]Graff et al., “Benefits of Pedometer-Measured Habitual Physical Activity in Healthy Women.”
[3]Bravata et al., “Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health: A Systematic Review.”
[4]Miyazaki et al., “Effects of a Year-Long Pedometer-Based Walking Program on Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Active Older People.”
[5]Chan et al., “Cross-Sectional Relationship of Pedometer-Determined Ambulatory Activity to Indicators of Health.”
[6]“Pedometers.”
[7]Bravata et al., “Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health: A Systematic Review.”
[8]Chan, Ryan, and Tudor-Locke, “Health Benefits of a Pedometer-Based Physical Activity Intervention in Sedentary Workers.”
Bravata, DM, C Smith-Spangler, V Sundaram, AL Gienger, N Lin, R Lewis, CD Stave, I Olkin, and JR Sirard. “Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health: A Systematic Review.” JAMA 298, no. 19 (November 21, 2007): 2296–2304. [PubMed]
Chan, CB, DA Ryan, and C Tudor-Locke. “Health Benefits of a Pedometer-Based Physical Activity Intervention in Sedentary Workers.” Preventive Medicine 39, no. 6 (December 1, 2004): 1215–22. [PubMed]
Chan, CB, E Spangler, J Valcour, and C Tudor-Locke. “Cross-Sectional Relationship of Pedometer-Determined Ambulatory Activity to Indicators of Health.” Obesity Research 11, no. 12 (December 1, 2003): 1563–70. [PubMed]
Graff, SK, BC Alves, MK Toscani, and PM Spritzer. “Benefits of Pedometer-Measured Habitual Physical Activity in Healthy Women.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism = Physiologie Appliquee, Nutrition et Metabolisme 37, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 149–56. [PubMed]
Miyazaki, R, K Kotani, K Tsuzaki, N Sakane, Y Yonei, and K Ishii. “Effects of a Year-Long Pedometer-Based Walking Program on Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Active Older People.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health 27, no. 2 (March 1, 2015): 155–63. [PubMed]
Moreau, KL, R Degarmo, J Langley, C McMahon, ET Howley, DR Bassett, and DL Thompson. “Increasing Daily Walking Lowers Blood Pressure in Postmenopausal Women.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 33, no. 11 (November 1, 2001): 1825–31. [PubMed]
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About the Author

ChuckH

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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