Surprise! 10,000 steps was a marketing ploy

For many years, my routine was a Sunday hike followed by a Sunday blog. For a variety of reasons, both my hiking and blogging have become erratic. After skipping yet another Sunday hike, I was surprised to find that I still had exceeded 10,000 steps per day for the past week. 10,000 is the number the World Health Organization recommends, fitness apps urge us to reach, and that has become conventional wisdom.

Surprisingly, there’s little to no science behind 10,000 steps.

Instead, it appears to be the result of good marketing. To capitalize on the popularity of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, a Japanese company called Yamasa Clock created a personal-fitness pedometer called the Manpo-kei. The name derives from the Japanese words “man” meaning 10,000, “po” meaning steps, and “kei” meaning system. (Native speakers, please correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong.)

So, why 10,000 steps? It could be simply an easy number to remember. Research found that the average Japanese person took between 3,500 and 5,000 steps per day. Increasing their daily step count to 10,000 would likely decrease risk of heart disease.

However, another theory – and one that appeals to me – is that the number was chosen because the Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a person walking. The easy-to-remember number and the visual reinforcement worked. The pedometer was hugely successful and the 10,000 number is still in use more than 50 years later.

While 10,000 steps is a memorable target, it can be counter-productive. A Duke University study found that people who tracked their steps enjoyed it less, reporting that walking felt like work. A University of Texas at Austin study showed that one hour of exercise was much less beneficial if the rest of the day was spent sitting and sleeping; 10,000 steps would better split up over multiple periods in the day.

In short, one size doesn’t fit all. There is no magic answer as to how many steps you should take every day. The best answer is whatever personally motivates you – and that might be to not even track how many steps you’re taking.

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