In May 2017, Fitbit reported that it had sold 63 million fitness trackers in its 10 years of operation. This is hardly surprising — the popularity of wearable fitness trackers is evidenced on wrists everywhere. Wearable trackers are intended to help people become aware of and increase their daily activity levels. Though today’s wearables often do much more than traditional pedometers, counting steps is still a large part of their marketing and popular appeal.

The goal most often recommended is 10,000 steps a day. Where did this target come from? Who is it right for? What will (and won’t) taking 10,000 steps a day do for us? And is step counting really the right way to measure our fitness and health? Such questions are being investigated by exercise scientists, kinesiologists, and other researchers. The answers, it turns out, are both simple and complex.

Why 10,000?

Several sources suggest that the goal of 10,000 steps a day originated in the 1960s in Japan. At the time, Japanese pedometer manufacturers sold a product known as the Manpo-Kei, which translates to “10,000 steps meter.” The 10,000 step target was based on research by Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D., who estimated that most Japanese citizens were walking an average of 4,000 steps a day. He believed increasing to 10,000 steps a day would make an impact on the health and weight of the average person.

Today, proponents of the 10,000 steps a day goal agree that most people benefit from the exercise involved in averaging 10,000 or more steps a day.

“People doing 10,000 steps tend to meet the activity guidelines more frequently,” said PLNU’s Brandon Sawyer, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Kinesiology. “But you can definitely get 10,000 and not meet the guidelines.”

“People doing 10,000 steps tend to meet the activity guidelines more frequently. But you can definitely get 10,000 and not meet the guidelines.”

–Brandon Sawyer, PH.D.

The guidelines to which Sawyer refers are those offered by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that people aged 18 to 64 engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity each week (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity). This goal can be broken down in many ways. Walking 30 minutes a day usually gets people to both the 10,000 step goal and the WHO exercise recommendation.

According to Jessica Matthews, Ph.D., director of PLNU’s M.S. in kinesiology integrative wellness track, only 23 percent of Americans currently meet these goals. Likewise, the Mayo Clinic reports that the average American typically walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day. So while the WHO says that additional benefits kick in for those exercising more than 300 minutes a week (or 150 vigorous intensity minutes), many people see a 10,000 step goal as daunting. Daunting though it may be, increasing steps from 4,000 to 10,000 would have benefits for most people, provided the increase is done gradually.

Where There’s A Will

Making health changes requires both information and dedication. For Matthews, the best aspect of fitness trackers is their potential to inspire people to make positive changes by providing objective information.

“From a behavior standpoint,” she said, “I can look at this through a couple of different lenses. Monitoring our actual level of activity, obtaining that objective data, is one of the things from a behavioral standpoint that can help. Having an aspect of self-monitoring is a significant part of making a sustainable change. We also know it’s important for people to experience success along the way.”

Feeling successful, she said, is very important for people to achieve and stick with goals like increasing exercise.

“The [10,000 step] goal is too high [a starting point] for most people,” she said. “Having ‘mastery experiences’ builds self-efficacy — the belief that we can achieve our goals. We can then use this self-efficacy as a support to where we want to go.”

Matthews suggests that people start by trying to add 500 to a 1,000 steps a day. With this in mind, advice like parking further away from a destination, taking a brief walk around the block at lunch or after dinner, or climbing a few flights of stairs on a break at work can actually make a difference.

“Little changes add up over time,” she said. “What’s important is to look at activity trackers as a way to get some objective data but not as a sacrifice of subjective data. How do you feel when you do these things? How did you sleep? Do you have more energy during the day? How are your clothes fitting?”

Infographics

“Little changes add up over time. What’s important is to look at activity trackers as a way to get some objective data but not as a sacrifice of subjective data. How do you feel when you do these things? How did you sleep? Do you have more energy during the day? How are your clothes fitting?”

–Jessica Matthews, PH.D.

It’s easy to dismiss small, simple bouts of exercise and activity as “not enough,” but Matthews encourages people to resist such thinking.

“It’s important to address common misconceptions such as cognitive distortion,” she said. “People may tell themselves, if I can’t go to the gym for 60 minutes, I might as well not do it. But in truth, the ACSM [American College of Sports Medicine] says even exercising for short bouts throughout the day can have the same benefits.”

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There’s A Way

The idea that exercise is good for us is far from revolutionary. So why don’t more people meet the minimum recommendations for being active? Why does the average American walk only 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day? The cognitive distortion Matthews mentions can be one hindrance, but there are other barriers as well. The key to finding a way to reach exercise goals is to determine what the obstacles are and to develop a plan to overcome them.

Sawyer agrees with Matthews that behavioral and psychology barriers are often at play.

“Exercising is the most inefficient thing that we do — it burns a lot of calories for no direct purpose,” he said. “Our brains revolt because it’s against our biology, which is set up to save as many calories as possible.”

He acknowledges that there are other more practical barriers to exercise as well.

“Society is not set up to promote exercise,” Sawyer said. “Many people have to commute. We spend a lot of time in our cars and sitting work. We’ve set up our society so that we drive everywhere instead of walking. The amount of time we have left to exercise is limited.”

“Society is not set up to promote exercise. Many people have to commute. We spend a lot of time in our cars and sitting work. We’ve set up our society so that we drive everywhere instead of walking. The amount of time we have left to exercise is limited.”

Walking helps ameliorate some of the physical, logistical, and financial barriers to exercise since it doesn’t necessarily require getting sweaty, feeling out of breath, changing clothes, going to a gym, or buying expensive equipment. That’s one reason a step goal makes sense for many people.

“Walking is very accessible if you are in a safe neighborhood,” Matthews pointed out.

As people gain fitness and confidence through walking, they can then look to add strength training, which Matthews says is also very important, and to increase the intensity and duration of their workouts if they’d like. But she emphasizes that the way to start is at the beginning.

Closeup on shoe of athlete runner man feet running on road

The Wright Way

PLNU sophomore Alesia Wright understands the excuses and challenges people face. Until 2018, she fell victim to many of them. And her health was paying the price. She was prediabetic and knew she needed to make a change.

“I used to be tired all the time,” she said. “I could barely make it to class, and I didn’t know why. I was on the path to diabetes, which my mom has.”

Wright had already realized she wanted to change her health when she began taking Physical Education 200: Optimal Health with professor Alisa Ward in the spring of 2018. It turned out that the general education course helped her sustain her commitment.

The students in Ward’s class were required to keep an activity log, which was one way Ward got to know her students. One of their assignments was to exercise for two hours a week.

“For some of our student-athletes, they met the goal in one day,” Ward said.

But for some, like Wright, this was an achievable starting point. Wright began by using the treadmill, elliptical machine, or stair stepper at the gym. Eventually, she added weight training and changed her diet.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “Every day I have to make the decisions about if I want to be healthier or if I want to go back to my old ways.”

“Every day I have to make the decisions about if I want to be healthier or if I want to go back to my old ways.”

Wright’s experience exemplifies Matthews’ point: Wright started with where she was at and built up to meeting the health recommendations over time rather than all at once. She recognized that changing her behavior would be a mental as well as a physical process.

Matthews also explained why being in the optimal health class was a benefit to Wright’s journey.

“Vicarious experiences — when people see others like themselves being successful — increase people’s own self-efficacy,” she said. “That’s why the group and social aspect can help — and we know that social support is also an important part of wellness.”

Wright’s family and friends have now begun to benefit from seeing her success. Not everyone is making as dramatic a change as she did, but others are being inspired to take small steps because they can see the difference in her life.

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“You are a lot more capable of doing things than you think you are,” she encourages people. “You’d be surprised what your body can do. I am unable to do this by myself, but through prayer and relying on God, I’m living up to the potential He has for me.”

Ward is proud of Wright, not just because she began exercising, eating well, and improving her health, but also because she has caught the vision of the “why” Ward emphasizes in her class.

“We talk about quality of life and health and not just looks,” Ward said. “It’s something I’m passionate about, health and being active and being able to interact with family and friends and to give our best in our future jobs and Christian traditions. It’s about being thankful and grateful for the bodies we have.”

The Benefits of 10,000

The benefits of walking are well documented. Research has shown that a 30-minute daily walk can lower blood pressure; lift mood; improve sleep; and cut the risk of stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Daily walking has also been shown to be effective in combating both anxiety and depression. And more exercise appears to bring additional benefits. According to an article in the Harvard Gazette, an hour-long walk performed five days a week can cut stroke risk nearly in half. Other forms of physical activity that burned 2,000 to 3,000 calories a week had the same benefit. A 30-minute daily walk burning 1,000 to 2,000 calories a week proved to lower risk by 24 percent.

While exercise alone doesn’t always produce weight loss or maintenance, in some cases, it does help. If a person’s walk is done outdoors, an additional benefit is a boost in vitamin D. If done with friends, there are added benefits from the social aspect as healthy relationships and connections with others have been proven to play in role in both good physical and mental health.

Runners tying their running shoes and getting ready for long run

Alternate Routes

Step counting is certainly not the only way for people to meet exercise and health goals. In an article for the BBC, Michael Mosley compared the results from two very small groups of volunteers who either aimed to achieve 10,000 steps a day or to do three 10-minutes walks per day with a focus on getting their heart rates up. In this limited study, the participants undertaking the three shorter walks had an easier time achieving their goal and spent more time accumulating moderate to vigorous activity even though they spent less total time being active and walked fewer steps overall.

And when it comes to addressing specific health goals, intensity and duration of exercise may matter in different ways. For example, a Harvard study found that moderate intensity activities “such as brisk walking, stair-climbing, bicycling, and gardening” cut stroke risk. Light activity, like bowling or housework didn’t offer the same benefit. In this case, housework might increase steps but would have less of an effect on the risk of stroke.

High-intensity interval training and other intense exercise offers greater benefits for cardiorespiratory fitness, muscle metabolism, and the heart, Sawyer said. On the other hand, intensity seems to be less important than duration when it comes to blood glucose and blood pressure. What’s more, recent research indicating the dangers of prolonged sitting shows that any movement or activity that breaks up sitting can be beneficial.

Research done by Sawyer and his colleagues at Arizona State University found that multiple bouts of exercise are better for hypertension and blood sugar. While previous health guidelines suggested that people aim to exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time, new research, like Sawyer’s, has eliminated that recommendation.

“Even two minutes could make a difference,” Sawyer said. “Knowing this gives people more options.”

When it comes to exercise and weight loss, Sawyer says the data is mixed on what works best. The results from all types of exercise vary among individuals when it comes to weight loss.

What we do know is that exercise is good for us. And it appears that more is better.

“You are a lot more capable of doing things than you think you are. You’d be surprised what your body can do. I am unable to do this by myself, but through prayer and relying on God, I’m living up to the potential He has for me.”

–Alesia Wright

A recent article in Time magazine reported that exercise cuts mortality risk significantly with no upward bounds, meaning that more exercise was consistently found to equal a lower mortality risk. “Excessive” exercise was not detrimental in the study on which the article reported. The article also reported that a lack of exercise appeared to be even more dangerous for overall mortality than smoking.

“Extreme cardiorespiratory fitness … was associated with the lowest risk-adjusted all-cause mortality compared with all other performance groups,” said the original study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) open network.

What Matthews, Sawyer, Ward, and Wright all want to emphasize, however, is that while more is better, some is better than none, and starting somewhere is perhaps the most important of all.

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