Ten thousand steps…the myth

  • Why you don’t need to take ten thousand steps a day
  •  How much walking you really need to do
  •  The benefits of meditation on the move

A friend of my wife’s was round the other day.

She had one of those step-counting apps on her iPhone.

“I’ve already hit my 10,000 steps for the day!” she beamed.

You hear it a lot…

Ten thousand steps – the secret to good health.

Walk that amount every day and you’ll lose weight, live longer and feel bloomin’ wonderful.

And of course, it’s great that Lara’s friend is doing that much walking.

So I bit my tongue and didn’t mention to her that the “10,000 steps idea” is actually an old marketing ploy, designed to sell pedometers.

However, since you and I are here to talk health truths, I can’t be accused of “mansplaining” this one!

So I’m sure you won’t mind me busting this myth.

Why you don’t need to take 10,000 steps a day

Back in the 1960s, the world’s first commercial pedometer was invented in Japan by the company, Yamasa Tokei.

The pedometer’s name was Manpo-kei, which translates as the ‘10,000-step meter’.

But that name was only chosen because it was catchy!

There wasn’t any science behind the number at all.

However, it caught on, and has since become received wisdom across the world, to the point where most apps and pedometers will repeat that target.

Now, I’m not saying that walking 10,000 steps per day is bad for you.

But the truth is that you only need to do 7,000-8,000 steps – which is based on real research and is actually more achievable for most of us.

A 2019 study on older women showed 4,400 steps a day had lower mortality rates over four years compared to those who walked less than 2,700 steps a day.

But over 7,500 steps, there weren’t any further benefits.

Another more recent study in 2020 showed that 8,000 steps or more would give you a lower risk of dying from any cause.

So if you want to be generally healthier, a moderate amount of walking will do it.

If you want to lose weight, then actually you need to double that and do 15,000 steps every day.

Researchers at the University of Warwick have shown that this can lower weight and maintain a healthy metabolic profile in postal workers who regularly cover that kind of distance.

However, despite this, many scientists are unsure about this and think that the relationship between walking and weight loss isn’t so cut and dried.

Diet, they say, is the ultimate key to weight loss.

But as long as you are mobile and able to walk, you can’t really go wrong with a good stroll each day, even if it’s a ramble through town to clear your head and get some daylight, particularly when the clocks change this weekend.

A walking technique for fitness

Interestingly, I was looking around for ways to turn walking into something that gives you the most benefit, and I found a few tips on the Mayo Clinic website that I thought I’d share.

When you next go out for your walk, try the following:

  • Put your head up, with neck straight, so that you’re looking out towards the horizon
  • Relax your neck and shoulders, rather than having them all tense and stiff
  • Straighten your back (rather than arching it backwards or slouching forward)
  • Swing your arms freely with a slight bend in your elbows
  • Pull your stomach muscles in slightly, so they are tensed and engaged (but not to the point where you cannot breathe properly)
  • Roll your foot from heel to toe in a smooth motion

When you walk like this, you increase the amount of aerobic activity and help burn calories.

The same article also suggested that you should change the speed of your walk as you go…

So start at a leisurely pace, then break into a brisk walk for a short while, then switch back to the slower pace again.

This boosts your cardiovascular fitness and also burns more calories.

Saying that, I’d also recommend that while you focus on how you walk, you should also pay close attention to your surroundings.

Note the colours, textures, smells and sounds…

Observe the birds, trees, architecture and people going about their day.

Feel the ground beneath your feet, your blood pumping round the body and the air in your lungs.

Focus on your breathing and posture.

Whatever it is, try and stop your brain spiralling into negative thoughts and stressful considerations about your past and future.

Also try and avoid autopilot walking where you aren’t present in the moment at all.

Instead, use your walk as a form of meditation.

In effect, combine that brisk walking with MINDFUL walking. Then you get both the physical and the psychological benefits.

For example, in a 2015 study, researchers looked at the brain activity of people after a 90-minute walk. Dr. Strauss, director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance said:

“When people are depressed or under high levels of stress, this part of the brain malfunctions, and people experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts… Having something pleasant to focus on like trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking, so your thoughts become less filled with worry.”

When you lower stress you reduce the amount of cortisol in your bloodstream, which in turn reduces inflammation and lowers blood pressure.

So the psychological benefit becomes a physical one too, over time.

Anyway, it’s worth thinking about as the nights draw in – if you can get out and about this winter, even for 30 minutes, it will do you lots of good.