It’s the magic number: 10,000. That’s the number of hours it’s said one must practice in order to become an expert. It’s also the number of steps one is said to need to take daily in order to retain good health. The problem is, much as the first claim is loaded with conditions, the second claim, it turns out, just isn’t true. The multi-billion dollar market built around more-or-less fancy pedometers is built on fragile ground. The WHO, which has likewise adopted the 10,000 step rule as some kind of guideline, has similarly not based its recommendation on anything scientific.
Indeed, that 10,000 steps number has recently been revealed to have stemmed from a Japanese marketing campaign that dates to the middle of the 1960s, essentially to cash in on the popularity of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. That was when Yamasa, the maker of – yes – the world’s first wearable step counter came up with that arbitrary number. Why? Because it’s device was called the ‘manpo-kei’, or the ’10,000 step meter’.
Sure, on paper there is nothing wrong at all about walking 10,000 steps a day, especially since so many of us lead dangerously sedentary lives. It’s great given the rising incidence of heart disease. Indeed, 10,000 steps is quite a lot. But it remains only a guideline, a hallowed figure repeated in studies that tend to compare and contrast it against lesser figures more or less randomly. Indeed, most of us actually don’t make half of that 10,000 on a typical day, and studies have suggested that between 6000 and 8000 steps a day is sufficient to help protect against various chronic illnesses, including stroke and cardiovascular disease.
It’s rather akin to doctors’ advice to get 20 minutes to half an hour of moderate exercise every day. That’s an excellent rule of thumb – but just that. And one that should be taken with some caution: if you spend most of your time on your backside and then launch into a 10,000 step a day programme, it’s potentially going to do you more harm than good, especially if you’re older or ill. You need to build up to it over time. Perhaps then you can even surpass it. Other studies have been looking into whether getting between 15000 and 18000 steps a day is actually that much better than a ‘mere’ 10,000. And whether the benefit actually lies less in the number of steps, as the intensity of steps, which gets the heart rate faster.
The jury is still out on both investigations. But whatever the results, you can bet that the idea of the legendary 10,000 steps will be sticking around long after it’s been comprehensively debunked.