Step counting | The fact and fiction of walking 10,000 steps a day

If step counting is your thing, you’ll have seen the number 10,000 everywhere. Most of us have never stopped to think about where this number comes from. We’ve dived into the fact and the fiction of walking 10,000 steps a day to bring you the origins, health benefits, and studies surrounding this magic number.

Where does the number 10,000 come from?

The idea of walking 10,000 steps a day comes from a hugely successful marketing campaign launched ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The number was chosen because the Japanese character for 10,000 resembles a person walking, and the idea caught on.

This brilliant ad campaign saw a relatively arbitrary number become the global standard for step tracking. It’s important to remember that this number doesn’t apply to everyone.

If you’re interested in step tracking, the best way to start is to find a number that works for you and increase that by one or two thousand steps a day. If proves too easy, you can always add more. If it’s too challenging, you can dial it back until your fitness improves.

What are the health benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day?

Walking 10,000 steps a day is the goal for many of us, but are there actually any proven health benefits?

Since this Japanese marketing campaign launched in 1964, science and medicine have proven that the “sweet spot” for reducing the onset and severity of several diseases and illnesses does in fact lie around the 10,000-step mark.

Take a look below to find out more about the proven health benefits of walking 10,000 steps per day:

Tailoring your goals

You wouldn’t walk into a gym and pick up the heaviest weights you can find. When setting a fitness goal, you need to consider ability, age, experience, and overall physical activity.

If you try to walk 7,000 steps and find this easy, aiming for 10,000 per day shouldn’t be too difficult. If you try to squeeze 5,000 in and find this tricky, you may need to re-evaluate your goals and start off aiming for 3,000.

Recommended steps per day by age

It’s difficult to give a hard and fast number to aim for based purely on age. This is because everyone’s fitness and mobility levels are different.

A good place to start is to take a leisurely walk and see how you feel. You can use this duration and effort level to decide what a challenging but achievable goal looks like for you.

Ten thousand steps has become the standard because it’s a relatively accessible goal for all ages to aim for. Don’t let this figure put you off if it’s not achievable for you. Set a goal that works for you and gradually increase it over time.

If you’re concerned about your health before starting, talk with a GP or healthcare practitioner.

Children

Children and adolescents tend to be more active and on the move. A 2011 scientific journal article found that people under the age of 18 tend to average anywhere between 10,000 and 16,000 steps per day.

Because children are less likely to own a device that tracks steps, a better way of gauging whether your child is active enough is to measure the amount of time they’re active every day. The NHS advise that children aged between 5 and 18 need to perform at least 60 minutes of aerobic activity per day.

Adults

For adults, 10,000 a day is the commonly touted number. Your job, fitness level, and age will all determine what is “normal” for you and what you should aim to achieve.

The average adult male took roughly 5,340 steps per day, whilst the average adult female took around 4,912 steps per day. Based on these averages, making the jump to 10,000 steps per day will mean doubling the number of steps we take in a day.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t accessible for everyone and shouldn’t be seen as a pass/fail grade that you have to meet. Measuring the amount of time you spend engaged in physical activity can be just as valuable as measuring the number of steps you take doing it.

The NHS recommends that adults aged between 19 and 64 engage in a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity exercise weekly. Adding ten minutes of brisk walking per day helps introduce more intense exercise that raises your heart rate.

If measuring time and distance isn’t working for you, experts also advise adults to focus on the intensity of their walking.

Older adults

Older adults need to be more careful when goal setting. Consider your mobility and historic exercise levels before you start tracking your steps. If you’re concerned about your mobility or want to increase your activity levels, consider visiting a GP before you start.

There is a growing body of research that suggests the risk of premature death may level off after around 6000 to 8000 steps per day in adults aged 60 and over.

If you have a chronic health condition that limits your mobility or ability to walk comfortably, the American NIH recommends you aim for around five and a half thousand steps per day.

What is the best way to track my steps?

There are countless digital devices on the market that can help track your steps for you. These devices vary in quality, accuracy, and simplicity, and come in all different shapes and sizes.

Most modern smartphones have a built-in step counter that uses GPS to track your steps. If not, there are countless free and paid-for apps on Apple and Android phones that you can use to track steps alongside a wider range of health and lifestyle metrics.

If you’re looking for a more accurate reading, smart watches and fitness trackers that use pinpoint GPS technology are a great way to monitor your progress. Modern smartwatches and fitness trackers can be synced to your smartphone for a detailed breakdown of metrics like distance travelled, sleep quality, stress levels, and much more.

If you’re old school and want to avoid syncing a smartwatch with your mobile phone, there’s always the pedometer. Pedometers are available in the traditional clip-on sensor style or as a wearable watch or strap.

Is walking 10,000 steps a day enough?

Steps are a great baseline for any fitness routine. If you’re already an active individual, you may want to incorporate a 10,000-step goal into your daily workout routine.

If you’re less active and want to increase your activity level, setting a goal you know you can meet and building on that over time is the best way to introduce positive changes that last.

10,000 steps can be a lot to start with. Trying to reach an average of around 5,000 steps a day. Adding to this over time tends to work well for most people who aren’t active or athletic when starting out.

How far is 10,000 steps?

10,000 steps is roughly equivalent to walking five miles or eight kilometres depending on your stride length, cadence, and height.

If you are looking to get your 10,000 steps done all in one go, you’ll be walking for around an hour and forty minutes.

Will walking 10,000 steps a day help me lose weight?

Doing any physical exercise will help contribute to a calorie deficit which is required for weight loss.

Specifically walking 10,000 steps a day has been linked with weight loss, however, it’s not required and shouldn’t be viewed as something mandatory in order for you to lose weight. Engaging in high-intensity exercise will burn more calories over a shorter period of time, but will result in fewer steps and movement overall.

If weight loss is your end goal, prioritising time spent on the move should be your number one priority. If this means walking, 10,000 steps a day can be a great target. If you’re into other physical activities, consider trying to meet the NHS minimum guidelines on physical activity instead.

Why is walking such a popular form of exercise?

No matter what your ability, you can commit to walking at a pace that works for you. Building up your distance slowly over time is a great way to track progress and improve your health and wellbeing.

  • Free: walking is a free activity that doesn’t cost a thing. There’s no fees to pay or subscriptions that can be purchased to make your experience better. Walking is and always will be a free form of exercise
  • Can be done anywhere: on top of being free, walking can be done anywhere. If you’re chasing 10,000 steps in a day, try squeezing a walk into your lunch break or getting up early to take a stroll around the block
  • No equipment required: running doesn’t require any equipment or expertise. You can wear whatever you feel comfortable with and there’s no requirement for gadgets or tools to enhance your experience
  • Easily adaptable for all abilities: no matter your age, weight, mobility, or ability, you can start walking in a way that works for you. Whether this is a five-minute stroll up and down the road or a three-hour hike into the mountains, there’s something for you
  • Low-impact: if you suffer with joint pain, a bad back, or your mobility is limited by a muscular skeletal condition, walking is a safe, low-impact way to exercise
  • Social interaction: if you’re all about combining social events and exercise, there’s no better option than walking. Walking the dog with others or scheduling a well-deserved mid-hike pub stop are all great ways to enjoy walking in the company of others 
  • Consistency: the most important part of any exercise routine is consistency. High intensity often means a higher rate of failure because maintaining an elevated rate of exertion over time is hard. Start small and build your step goal over time as your ability improves.

I’m struggling to meet my target

Setting a goal that’s too difficult initially is not uncommon.

If you’re in pain, stop, rest up, and re-evaluate your goals in line with what you’ve learned. If you’re experiencing muscle aches and soreness, adequate rest should help.

If you think your pain is a sign of something more serious, arranging an appointment with a physiotherapist can help shine a light on any underlying conditions or considerations you need to account for before returning to exercise.

Last updated Friday 1 March 2024

First published on Friday 15 September 2023