Why 10,000 Steps A Day Is An Excellent Target

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Throw away your fitness trackers or, if you’re mentally keeping a tally of your steps every day, stop counting. An expert has declared it pointless.

Dr Greg Hager – a computer scientist – of Johns Hopkins University in the US has suggested that 10,000 steps is an arbitrary goal that could even cause harm.

“Why is 10,000 steps important? What's big about 10,000?” Hager asked at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

"Turns out in 1960 in Japan they figured out that the average Japanese man, when he walked 10,000 steps a day, burned something like 3,000 calories and that is what they thought the average person should consume. So they picked 10,000 steps as a number.

"Imagine everyone thinks they have to do 10,000 steps but if you are not actually physically capable of doing that. You could actually cause harm or damage by doing so.”

Now we’ve nothing against Hager, he’s an expert in his field and probably a great guy, and his wider point about a lack of science to back up the efficacy of fitness apps is interesting (and true). But there’s seems to be little value in taking a shot at the 10,000 steps a day target in this way.

For starters, to use his own argument against him, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence given of people putting themselves at risk of harm by trying to hit 10,000 steps a day.

Also, it’s unfair to extend this criticism to all fitness trackers. The majority aren’t just step counters – they track calories and activity too, combining a variety of data to give a picture of your movement and indicate where you can do more to improve your health.

As it happens, many of them also let you adjust step targets, so if you are elderly or infirm you can reduce them.

If we’re going after arbitrary targets in fitness, there are plenty of others to have a go at. For example, when people line up for a marathon, they’re running 26.2 miles because the soldier Pheidippides supposedly ran about that distance from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 BC.

Fitness in general isn’t exact. If there was an exact amount of steps each person should do to live forever that would be great, but until then anything that motivates you to do a bit more exercise is almost always a positive, and the 10,000 step target does just that for many people.

It’s actually a very good target in that it’s achievable for the vast majority of people and naturally involves at least 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, which is the (non-arbitrary) target set by the NHS.

RECOMMENDED: Do you really need to take 10,000 steps a day to be fit?

This is not the first time someone has taken aim at fitness trackers, and it won't be the last. People seem to take issue with them for all sorts of reasons, most commonly that they won't solve all your health and fitness problems at one stroke.

Of course they won’t and no-one is claiming they will – and it’s hard to believe people are following their gentle activity suggestions so strictly it puts them in danger. For many people they’re a handy, relatively inexpensive tool and a symbol that they’re trying to do something about their lifestyle to make it more healthy. There’s not an awful lot wrong with that.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.