Why 10,000 steps is a myth, and what to do instead

Struggle to reach that 10k step count every single day? Stop stressing because you don’t actually need to. Here’s what you should be doing instead, according to a lifestyle medicine physician.

The public health messages around exercise have remained the same for years. “Find Thirty.” “Walk 10,000 steps.”

We do our best and feel guilty when we don’t quite hit those targets. But have you ever wondered what the scientific basis of these are?

The 30-minutes slogan was based on the assumption this was the amount of aerobic exercise needed each day to help prevent weight gain due to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, while walking 10,000 steps, was a marketing ploy.

Back in 1964 the Yamasa Company was busy putting the finishing touches to its first wearable pedometer in time for the Tokyo Olympics. They chose to call it “manpo-kei”, which translates into 10,000-steps meter. It’s a nice round number but there was no scientific evidence to back it up.

So, if your wearable step tracker is constantly reminding you that you haven’t reached your daily target, it’s time to stop chastising yourself and look at what to do instead.

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What to do instead of 10k steps a day

Aim for quality rather than quantity

Going for a brisk short walk is better than a longer amble through the park. However, any opportunity to get up and moving is helpful to lower your risk of heart disease, improve your mood, clear your mind, reduce stress and boost your energy.

Aim for consistency in the intensity of your walking, making it fast enough to get your heart rate up but still possible to have a conversation. The ideal cadence being 100 steps plus per minute. Consistency in your habit is what contributes to the ongoing health benefits.

Remain upstanding

In addition to walking every day, spending more time on your feet has a number of advantages.

The use of variable height desks has become increasingly popular for the health benefits associated with reducing the time spent sitting on our bottoms. Research has shown their use improves working memory, attention and executive function (planning, organising and making decisions) but not weight loss.

Adjust your activity expectations during lockdown

If your normal exercise routine left the building with the arrival of COVID-19, look for ways to remain physically active across your day.

The greatest benefit to increasing your step count is when you’re starting from close to ground zero. Here, increasing your daily step count by 2,000 steps brings the greatest boost to your general health. Otherwise over 6,000 steps is cardio-protective and if you’re generally walking 7,500 steps a day, you’re doing well. Naturally if you’re used to walking 10,000 steps each day, that’s fantastic, too.

What if the thought of exercise doesn’t appeal to you?

Not everyone thinks fondly of exercise, especially if it conjures up images of getting hot and sweaty in lycra.

While 44 per cent of Australians are meeting the weekly requirements of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, 22 per cent don’t do any. Allergies, exercise intolerance and excuses aside, the benefits are there for the taking, but perhaps in a different guise. Dancing, gardening, walking the dog, or chasing the children all count.

Regularly getting into nature or living close to a green or blue space has been shown to increase the amount of time you spend moving outside, without even noticing.

Use exercise to boost your mood

Rather than undertaking exercise just for general fitness, it’s a daily essential for maintaining your mental wellbeing and lowering stress. If uncertainty, anxiety, worries or symptoms of depression are weighing you down, getting out for a walk, swim or cycle will shift your psychology and bring you to a happier place. Here, both aerobic and strength (weights) training have been shown to promote better mental health.

Mix it up to avoid boredom

If walking is your thing, that’s great, but adding in a couple of weights or resistance training each week is also recommended. Or you might like to explore eccentric training. This doesn’t involve having to wear fancy dress, but relates to the type of muscular activity being used. Muscle strength is vital to balance and how well we function especially with age. An eccentric exercise is where you choose to sit slowly into a chair or take the lift to the sixth floor and choose to take the stairs down. This is ideal if mobility is limited or you want to avoid stressing the cardiovascular system while getting the same metabolic, mental and cognitive benefits associated with aerobic exercise.

It’s time to ditch the myth of the 10,000 steps and seek to move more and sit less as the new exercise prescription.

Dr. Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, global speaker and best-selling author specialising in brain health, mental wellbeing and social connection. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to cultivate a good life (Wiley) is now available online and at all good bookstores.