10,000 steps a day: Scientifically sound or marketing hype?

Ever wonder where the 10,000 step-per-day goal originated? The daily activity goal, popularized by Fitbit, the world’s leading producer of wearable activity monitors, has embedded itself into the modern fitness psyche and is used as the benchmark for health-conscious consumers looking to combat the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.

But where does this recommendation come from? And is it practical advice to follow?

Earlier this year, Fitbit came under fire from scientists claiming the 10,000 step per day target, which translates to about 5-miles of walking, had no scientific backing and was a completely meaningless goal for people to shoot for.

While the origins of the 10,000 step concept are somewhat murky (they point back to pedometers sold in Japan during the 1960s that were branded as “10,000 steps meters”), there does seem to be some credible evidence (here, here, and here) supporting the idea that 10,000 steps a day can improve important health biomarkers.

As a fitness coach, I’ve got mixed opinions on the topic.

First, it’s important to understand why the 10,000 step benchmark might be an effective strategy for improving health. Getting fitter really comes down to stressing the body beyond what it’s currently used to.

In a sedentary culture such as ours, people rarely experience any kind of physical stress on a daily basis. So for many, 10,000 extra steps of movement would be a huge increase in overall activity and be sufficient to create some positive change. This is one of the classic benefits of being a fitness beginner: because novices are starting at such a relatively low level, it hardly takes any kind of stimulus to get better.

Another benefit of the 10,000 steps goal is that it’s incredibly simple and accessible for beginners. It requires no equipment (other than an expensive monitoring device), no gym membership, and no special skills. And while 10,000 steps might be an arbitrary number to hit, it’s a nice, memorable, round number that feels good when you reach it.

But while I applaud people for getting their steps in, the coach in me gets a little irritated by the idea that changes in fitness and health are driven simply by volume of movement. What a step-based approach to better fitness ignores is a variable that has a much more potent effect on one’s physiology: intensity.

While volume refers to the amount of movement someone engages in, intensity is about the effort that goes in to produce that movement. Two people could both take 10,000 steps in a 24-hour period, but it would be a mistake to assume that they did the same amount of work. To do that, you’d need to figure out how long it took each person to get to 10,000 steps and what their average heart rate was while moving.

To only prescribe physical activity based on on volume would be like saying students should study for at least two hours prior to an exam. The correct amount of study time really depends on how much information that student needs to retain, and how productive and efficient those hours are.

Research on is nearly conclusive that high-intensity exercise is a more time-efficient approach, and may produce better benefits than longer, moderately-intense exercise. But the downside to high-intensity exercise is that it requires the exact opposite of everything that makes a volume-oriented, step-based approach to daily activity appealing: it often takes special equipment or a place to do it, it’s typically not suitable for beginners or those less inclined to work out, and done correctly, it’s a painful way to exercise.

In other words, counting steps blends well with your daily life, high-intensity training doesn’t.

So where do I come down on this whole 10,000 steps-per-day recommendation? I think it’s a great entry point to people who are new and intimidated by the thought of starting a workout program. If it gets someone who isn’t moving at all, to walking a few extra miles per day, I’m all for it.

It’s just important that people understand that it’s not the ultimate solution to health. It’s an important, but incomplete part of the whole equation. At a certain point, and very quickly I might add, a beginner will adapt to 10,000 steps and progress will stall. The solution then is a simple one: walk a little faster.