Counting Steps Is No Way to Stay In Shape

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You might remember the March 2017 study that suggested taking 10,000 steps per day isn’t going to protect you from coronary heart disease. According to the data gleaned from the study participants, the only group completely devoid of heart-disease markers were those who racked up roughly 15,000 steps and seven hours of upright daily activity.

But if the idea of trying to increase your daily Fitbit step goal by 5,000 steps makes you want to give up altogether, maybe it’s time to stop and ask: Should we really be measuring our health by an arbitrary number of daily steps? Movement experts say no.

Where Did 10k Steps Per Day Come From, Anyway?

The 10,000 steps per day goal seems to be woven into the fabric of our collective understanding, like if you hit that number, you’re probably a healthy dude. And while there are certainly benefits to logging this number of steps (especially if it’s an increase from your previous activity level), it’s actually a pretty arbitrary goal. “The whole 10,000 steps thing originated sometime in the ‘60s with the Japanese predecessor to the mechanical pedometer,” says Andy Fossett, the CEO of GMB Fitness. “It was called a manpo-kei, which means 10,000-steps meter. Ten thousand is a significant, symbolic number in Japan, so it was a clever, catchy name.”

Fossett says the 10,000 steps standard wasn’t attached to scientific research at the time of its inception. Rather, scientific research started to grow up around 10,000 steps, creating a type of confirmation bias. Scientists started assessing, “Well, if someone increases their activity to 10,000 steps daily, are there health benefits?” And the answer, of course, was yes. But as Fossett points out, “There’s no magic that happens at 10,000 steps.” It can certainly serve as a goal, but perhaps it shouldn’t be the goal.

The Quality of Your Movement Matters as Much as Quantity

Take a moment to think about the types of movement you do every day. Walking from your desk to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee logs a certain number of steps, but that same number of steps manifests itself differently if you’re walking up stairs, dancing around your house, or hiking on a trail. “Walking outside in nature is going to be better for you than walking on a smooth treadmill,” Fossett says. “There’s variances in the terrain that make you use your feet and ankles differently, providing proprioceptive feedback to stimulate the nervous system.”

He adds that outdoor exercise adds other benefits, like stress-reduction and the enjoyment of fresh air, likening it to the difference in eating 500 calories of high-quality, nutrient-dense food, versus 500 calories of crap. One is better than the other, even if the quantity of calories is equal.

It’s also important to recognize that not all movement is easily quantifiable as “steps.” Any avid cyclist who’s ever felt ripped off by his pedometer’s activity meter can attest. But it goes beyond cycling. “Spending five minutes dancing to your favorite song is going to do a lot more for you than walking for those same five minutes,” Fossett says. This is because dancing engages more muscle groups, requires movement in multiple planes of motion, and often raises your heart rate to a greater extent than walking alone. Your step meter may not quantify these benefits, but they count, and they matter.

It’s About Creating a Lifestyle of Movement

Of course, both quality and quantity matter. Using Fossett’s food analogy, the number of calories you consume and the nutrient profile of those calories have an impact on your life. Likewise, the amount of activity you perform and the quality of that activity will affect your physical health.

“The tribes with the lowest rates of heart disease move all day, every day, but never set foot in a gym,” says biomechanist Katy Bowman, MS, the author of Move Your DNA. “Our requisite for movement goes beyond a workout. We need to be examining the swaths of sedentary behavior that make up the bulk of our lives.”

This means, yes, you need to exercise, and it’s perfectly fine to aim for a target like 10,000 steps per day, but you shouldn’t simply hit that goal and call it quits. Rather, it’s time to proactively change your approach to fitness to view continuous, quality movement as a foundation of overall health.

Fossett suggests starting this process by setting an alarm for every 90 minutes to do a five-minute mini challenge or game — something that feels meaningful and fun. “Try to sit and stand as many ways as you can, or reach to pick up an object in different angles and ranges,” Fossett says. “Tackle a ‘trick’ like learning to do a handstand, or try balancing or crawling. These types of exercises do a lot for strength, mobility, and coordination.” Ultimately, enhancing the quantity and quality of your total daily movement can do a whole lot more for your health than trying to hit an arbitrary step count.