Thanks to fitness trackers, apps and smart watches, just about everybody has a personal trainer on board.
And they're all encouraging and cajoling their "clients" to hit the magic number of 10,000 steps a day to experience the satisfaction of a pixelated smiley face — and, presumably, ongoing physical fitness.
But while few people would argue against the value of a 10,000-step day (roughly five miles of walking), the question is whether this catch-all plateau is a one-size-fits-all fitness goal.
We reached out to three local fitness experts to see where each of them stands on the topic of 10,000 steps:
- John Bobalik, certified exercise physiologist and the former director of the Purdue Northwest Fitness Center
- Kristine Graun, business development and communications coordinator for New Healthy Me, a wellness program for Community Healthcare System employees
- Amanda Miller, facility manager for Anytime Fitness in Schererville, who consulted with trainers Edward Mallory and Zach Cobb
Is 10,000 steps a worthwhile daily fitness goal for most people?
Bobalik: Walking 10,000 steps a day is an admirable goal for some people, but it seems to be based more on marketing by the companies that make pedometers, smart phone apps and fitness trackers than exercise science. There are no studies in the research literature that confirm 10,000 steps has been scientifically proven as the exact number people need to take each day to improve their health and cardiovascular fitness. Still, since only about 30% of American adults move enough on a regular basis, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics, it’s probably a goal worth having for many people.
Graun: Americans tend to be inactive, so for people who historically have little physical activity and/or have underlying health conditions, a goal of 10,000 steps a day can be a great starting point. We’ve been hearing the warning recently that sitting is the new smoking. So a daily step goal can be a good tool to remind us to get up and stay active, even if a more comprehensive fitness regimen should be the ultimate goal.
Miller: It takes a lot of walking or activity for someone to reach that 10,000-step goal daily. And walking that much every day is great because it keeps you active, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. However, just because someone is walking that much doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is truly healthy, and that 10,000-step level shouldn’t really be the benchmark to determine that.
What are the benefits or dangers of focusing solely on that 10,000-step plateau?
Bobalik: Keeping personal statistics can serve as a motivator for people who like to track their progress over weeks and months. People can involve friends and family members to make a contest out of it and that round number can help keep some people focused, so there are benefits to the 10,000-step goal. But 10,000 steps a day is not for everyone. Some people who don’t like to walk or have limited mobility may fall short of that number and become discouraged; they might do better on a stationary bike or elliptical or even in a group exercise class. Also, people who do nothing but 10,000 steps a day may forget about developing other important components of overall fitness. While they may be improving cardiovascular endurance, they’re doing nothing for upper body strength or muscle tone, flexibility, balance, reaction time or coordination — important components of functional fitness that 10,000 steps will never address.
Graun: Step goals can be beneficial since they provide a reminder to stay active — to get up and move. However, the quality of those steps can often be more impactful than the quantity. The issue is that people may become so focused on reaching 10,000 steps that they forget the quality aspect. For example, casually shopping at the mall for 5,000 steps is going to have less of an impact on your health than a brisk walk outside or maybe jogging those same 5,000 steps.
Miller: 10,000 steps a day is a great goal to have, but a lot goes into being healthy and eating is the main part of it. If someone is doing the same 10,000 steps every single day, their body will get used to it and not make any more progress. So although the 10,000 steps a day goal isn't bad by any means, it’s definitely not something to use as a gauge of one’s overall health.
Is there a better way to benchmark one’s daily exercise or activity level than 10,000 steps?
Bobalik: Don’t just focus on one component of fitness — work on a total fitness program. If you like to walk, include so many steps in your exercise program to improve your aerobic endurance or cardiovascular fitness. But also add a strength training component to improve muscle strength and muscle tone. Do some stretching exercises to improve or maintain flexibility. And if you’re a middle-age or older adult, add some functional fitness exercises to maintain or improve balance, coordination and reaction time.
Graun: Regular aerobic exercise can provide a number of benefits for a person’s health, including lower blood pressure, improved lung function and weight management or loss. That’s why having a goal of at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day is a good benchmark. There are trackers on the market that will monitor your heart rate and keep a log of time spent at an elevated heart rate, making it very easy for people to monitor their daily progress and reach their fitness goals.
Miller: Everyone is different and everyone is going to have a different benchmark for daily activity, but a few rules of thumb for almost anyone are to constantly push yourself, to switch up your workouts to add variety and to include some component of strength training. Once your body gets used to what it is doing every day, it’s hard to make additional progress, so change it up. My favorite saying in the gym is "make a change or remain the same."