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Do you really need to walk 10,000 steps a day? Experts say there's a better goal

For older people and those who are less fit, the so-called magic number of steps is demoralizing, experts say. [USA Today]
For older people and those who are less fit, the so-called magic number of steps is demoralizing, experts say. [USA Today]

Walking 10,000 steps a day is a good baseline to help you stay fit, but it isn't the one-size-fits-all goal you might think.

Fitness trackers such as Fitbit use the number as a default goal, but fitness experts suggest tailoring a step goal to an individual. Researchers traced the origins of the 10,000-step practice to a marketing gimmick from the 1960s and suggested some people don't greatly benefit from walking so much.

Harley Pasternak, a celebrity personal trainer who works with Fitbit, sets the goal of at least 10,000 steps for his clients. He explained in an email to USA TODAY that the step requirement, if it includes 30 minutes at a moderate intensity, satisfies guidelines for exercise set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week.

“I recommend to strive for 14,000 if you’re trying to lose weight,” he said.

Pasternak cautioned that the suggestion varies based on lifestyle, and for some people, setting a lower goal would be ideal.

10,000 steps was 'a marketing tool'

A Harvard study of nearly 17,000 women ages 66 to 78 found that those who walked 7,500 steps or more had the lowest mortality rate.

Even women who walked 4,400 steps had a lower mortality rate than those who were the least active and walked only about 2,000 steps. There were few, if any, additional benefits for the women who walked more than 7,500 steps.

I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the lead researcher in the study, told USA TODAY the 10,000-steps-a-day recommendation was  developed in the 1960s by early pedometer makers.

It got started as a marketing tool for a Japanese company," Lee said, referring to a Japanese pedometer released in 1965 called the "10,000 steps meter." She said there haven't been any scientific studies backing up that number. Asked why it became standard, she explained simply, "It's an easy number to remember."

How many steps should you walk?

Lee suggested walking 2,000 more steps than you usually walk every day.

You'll meet health guidelines by walking 10,000 steps a day – and it's not bad advice for younger people or those who have more experience with a fitness regimen. But Lee said that for older people and those who are less fit, the so-called magic number is demoralizing. She noted that for people who are inactive, setting too high a standard may discourage them from exercising entirely.

If you're inactive and your goal is to become more active, then set a reasonable goal," she said.

The average American, according to Lee, gets 4,000 to 5,000 steps every day. 

Although the Department of Health and Human Services lists a 150-minutes-a-week requirement, it makes it clear that any physical activity – no matter how slight – is better than none.

Follow Joshua Bote on Twitter: @joshua_bote


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