We all have a love-hate relationship with our fitness trackers and health apps. We love them on good days when we’ve got time to race up stairs, walk a few blocks to grab lunch or groceries, or get on the treadmill. But on days when there is neither time nor energy to take 1,000 steps — let alone 10,000 — the goal feels less of an inspiration and more of a judgment. This is usually when we ask ourselves: Who came up with 10,000 steps anyway, and is it even based on science?
The short answer is no. I-Min Lee, professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says (via The Atlantic), “It turns out the original basis for this 10,000-step guideline was really a marketing strategy,” she explains. “In 1965, a Japanese company was selling pedometers, and they gave it a name that, in Japanese, means ‘the 10,000-step meter.”
She also says the 10,000 steps was likely used because the Japanese written character for the number also looks like a walking man.
10,000 steps is not a one-size-fits-all goal
While most scientists agree that more movement leads to better fitness levels, as your body doesn’t attain the health it needs if you don’t exercise enough, 10,000 steps is not a goal that fits everyone. If you aim to — and make — 10,000 steps each day, you’d probably be covering your minimum fitness requirement, because Lee says that the average American clocks up between 4,000 to 5,000 steps a day.
“If you’re inactive and your goal is to become more active, then set a reasonable goal,” Lee says, because setting a standard that is too high could end up being demoralizing (via USA Today). Instead, Lee suggests walking 2,000 steps more than your daily average, which should cover your needs.
Lindsay Wilson, clinical professor of geriatric medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, also notes, “I don’t think setting the bar at 10,000 steps is a very successful way to approach exercise. Some people are not walkers. They don’t have safe neighborhoods, or they feel unsteady on sidewalks. You need to be more creative. Is this a person who needs to go to a gym class or the pool, or sit on a stationary bike?”
This is especially true of older people who are trying to get fit.
You need more than 10,000 steps to lose weight
On the other hand, trainer Harley Pasternak, who works with fitness gadget manufacturer Fitbit, says if you’re looking to lose weight, well, you’ll have to up the ante. This means 10,000 steps will have to include at least 30 minutes of steps taken at a moderate intensity for it to count. Otherwise, he says, “I recommend to strive for 14,000 if you’re trying to lose weight.” But he also says that any recommended goals need to be based on an individual’s lifestyle… which means for some folks at least, getting fewer steps in might be the right way to start.
So either reset your trackers or stop beating yourself up if 10,000 isn’t a thing on some days. No matter what your step goal is, doctors and scientists agree that moderate physical activity is critical if you want to lead a healthy, active life.
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