Peter James
, MHS, ScD

With the wide availability of wearable fitness trackers, people have been increasingly measuring the number of steps they take per day, striving to obtain those 10,000 steps. But what is the significance of 10,000 steps? And is counting steps really a good measure of physical activity? I recently attended the International Society for Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (ISBNPA) Annual Meeting in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia where I was fortunate to gain more insight into the step counting phenomenon.
Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor at UMass Amherst, is one of the pioneers of using pedometers and accelerometers to measure physical activity. Her research has informed many of the wearables that are commonly used today. Dr. Tudor-Locke gave a fascinating talk on step-counting, recounting the following points:

  • Step counting has been around for a while! The Romans measured the distances their legionaries traveled based on counting steps. In fact, the word “mile” is derived from the Latin “mille passus,” or one thousand paces.

  • The average healthy young adult (20-50 years of age) takes about 7,000-13,000 steps a day; adults under 65 years of age take 5,400-18,000 steps a day (although the higher end of that, 18,000, was from one study of Amish men, who probably walk more than the average American).

  • Rather than addressing step counting, physical activity guidelines for adults focus on time spent in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (also known as MVPA). The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association suggest that healthy adults need at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per day on five days a week; similarly, the US Department of Health and Human Services calls for “at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity.”

  • But what about all these step counts? Dr. Tudor-Locke’s research suggests that despite some inter-individual variation, 100 steps/minute is equivalent to at least moderate intensity walking. So 3,000 steps in 30 minutes would meet the guideline of 30 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity per day. Adding this to the regular steps from everyday activity, on average one would need to obtain 8,000 to 11,000 steps per day to meet physical activity guidelines.

  • And in fact, studies demonstrate that people who obtain 10,000 steps per day do meet the guideline of 150 minutes of MVPA per week. An Australian study using pedometers showed that adults who self-reported accumulating at least 150 minutes of MVPA in a week averaged 9,547 steps/day. In Dr. Tudor-Locke’s work in the US, people reporting 150 minutes/week of MVPA were getting in about 7,000 steps/day. So, achieving 7,000 steps appears to be enough to meet guideline recommendations.

  • Can you get better health from more steps?  To date, many studies have shown that a higher number of steps per day is associated with positive health outcomes, including lower prevalence of depression, lower BMI, and smaller waist circumference.

  • But maybe we are going about this all wrong. Isn’t there a health benefit if we take 9,999 steps in a day? And isn’t 12,000 steps better than 10,000? And for folks who don’t get a lot of physical activity, isn’t 2,000 steps better than 0? Tudor-Locke discourages the single-minded pursuit of threshold values: “From a public health practice point of view it is both rational and appealing to focus on motivating behavior change in the larger portions of the population with low to very low physical activity levels, rather than to focus solely on tailoring messages that may very well only appeal to subsamples that are already comparatively active.”

Or, more simply said, no matter if you’re getting 10 or 10,000 per day, every step counts!



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