Inquiring Minds Need To Know

Do We *Really* Need To Take 10,000 Steps A Day To Be Healthy?

An expert unpacks this commonly-heard health standard.

Two mom go on a walk, pushing a stroller.
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I have a confession to make: I rarely hit 10,000 steps a day, a fact that my iPhone likes to annoyingly point out to me every day. "Sorry, Queen, you didn't make it today. Try tomorrow!" I usually feel bad about this. As most of us know, hitting 10,000 steps a day has become the health sweet spot, promising less risk of heart disease and cancer and, of course, tighter calves. But what if we don't hit 10,000 steps a day? Is that OK? And why does it have to be exactly 10,000 steps anyway?

You might be surprised to learn that although the 10,000 steps a day recommendation is a popular one, according to certified personal trainer and Cure fitness advisor Rachel MacPherson, its origins are not rooted in any scientific studies.

"It originally came from an ad campaign in Japan designed to sell pedometers in 1965," she tells Scary Mommy. "It spread, and now it's somehow become the standard."

However, because science tends to respond to popular trends in society, studies have been conducted to show that reaching 10,000 steps can be a healthy goal to aim for. But, as MacPherson points out, walking 10,000 steps isn't a necessary goal or even a reasonable one for many people. "It can be a lofty goal for those who get an average of 3000 steps per day and may result in someone giving up before they even start," she acknowledges.

So, does that mean we should throw in the towel when it comes to taking 10,000 steps a day, or is there another reasonable walking goal to keep in mind?

How important is it to take 10,000 steps a day?

The main takeaway, MacPherson stresses, is that reaching 10,000 steps a day is neither an important or unimportant goal to reach. "It's simply a goal that suits some people but not others," she says. "For instance, this number does not reflect the intensity of the exercise that's being done. Running for half of those steps three times per week and walking for 10,000 steps the rest of the week may be even better for your health than aiming for 10,000 every single day."

Of course, the benefit of completing a goal of 10,000 steps per day is that you will be getting a decent amount of activity, says MacPherson, and that means you won't be too sedentary throughout the day, which contributes to poor health.

Simply put, it's not necessary to take 10,000 steps each day if you're being active. "You can take 15,000 one day and 5,000 the next, or you can adjust your goal to a lower or higher step count depending on your fitness goals and health," MacPherson shares.

What is a good goal to aim for when it comes to daily steps?

For her clients, MacPherson asks them to track their typical step count and start building on it in a way that fits into their lifestyle.

"We add 1000 to 2000 steps per day for a week and then see if we can increase from there," she explains. "I prefer people to break up their step counts over the day to prevent them from being sedentary all day and then completing all steps at once. I also usually have clients work up to a 1.5 to 2 mile/day intentional leisure walk that is separate from their regular activity just so they can achieve all the lovely benefits of walking for mental and physical health, preferably outdoors."

While MacPherson doesn't find completing 10,000 steps daily to be unrealistic (which I'm trying not to take personally) if people break it up throughout the day, she says, "It's only one example of a goal, and some people do best with 6,000 or 8,000 steps a day." However, she does point out that for lower step counts, some of that activity should be higher intensity, such as exercise "snacks" that last about five minutes and are more intense in effort.

What's a good goal for kids when it comes to steps?

Because kids are usually more active than adults, or at least should be in most cases, says MacPherson, kids should try to view physical activity as a way to have fun and enjoy themselves while caring for their health — she doesn't recommend strict tracking of any sort for kids.

"That said, 12,000 to 16,000 steps per day for kids is normal and will help them stay healthy," she says. "Thirty to 60 minutes of activity per day is a good place to aim for, but studies haven't yet determined an ideal blanket step count for kids."

If someone is committed to being active, does that replace 10,000 steps?

If you think hitting your steps is enough for your exercise routine, think again. According to MacPherson, your 10,000 steps should never be your only method of working out.

"Step count is more about being generally active and preventing a sedentary lifestyle," she says. "Weight-bearing exercise such as strength training is also vital for healthy muscles, bones, and metabolism. Some higher-intensity cardio-based activity is a good idea to include as well. These activities can contribute to step count."

The bottom line? According to MacPherson, if you're only going to the gym to exercise and the rest of your day is spent sedentary, your lifestyle is not optimal.

"It's crucial to break up sedentary time with movement to improve blood flow, prevent muscular imbalances, regulate blood sugar, and improve focus, mood, and overall well-being," she advises. Which means hitting those steps, whether it's 10,000 or less. Whatever gets you outside and moving is definitely a good goal to set!