Why is 10k the magic number of steps?

Well, capitalism, for one.

Work It Out

Recently a friend told me that her father walks 10,000 steps daily. I was impressed because, according to my own fitness tracker, I usually average more like 7,000. Sure, I do get a lot of other exercise, but the conversation made me wonder if I should be walking more. Honestly, I felt kind of ashamed about it. If a septuagenarian can manage to hit the magic number, why can’t I? Do I even need to? I asked experts to help me decode the mystery of why 10,000 steps a day is ideal.

First of all, you should know that the 10,000 steps goal was not created by doctors scrupulously dedicated to human health. The 10,000 step milestone, arguably made famous by FitBit, was actually created as a marketing ploy in the 1960s by a Japanese company Yamasa. Yamasa released the first step tracker 1964 and called it Manpo-kei, which translates to, “10,000 step meter.”

Ten thousand steps a day wasn’t an evidence-based health goal, though, it’s just that its name was catchy. “They [Yamasa] just felt that was a number that was indicative of an active lifestyle and should be healthy,” David Bassett, head of kinesiology, recreation and sport studies at the University of Tennessee, told The Guardian. And thus began the eternal quest to walk 10,000 steps a day.

The thing is that Yamasa may have been using the number arbitrarily, but most experts I spoke with agree that aiming for 10,000 steps a day isn’t a bad idea at all. “I do think it's an excellent benchmark,” Katelyn Palazzolo, an orthopedic physical therapist in New Hampshire, tells me. Palazzo says that she often promotes 10,000 steps as a goal for her patients because it’s an easy number to remember and, since so many people have step counters on their phones or wearables and already know how many steps they get in a day, it can be a way to set realistic health goals.

Basically, telling someone to get 10,000 steps a day to increase their health is a lot easier — and therefore more accessible — than planning out an elaborate workout regimen. But getting 10,000 steps a day isn’t some kind of holy grail of wellness, either. “I do not think 10,000 is a magic number,” says Palazzo. Recent research suggests that Palazzo is right that 10,000 steps is a good goal and she’s also right to say that it’s not magic.

Lorenzo Antonucci/Image Source/Getty Images

Earlier in the month, a meta-analysis of 15 different studies on optimal daily step counts was conducted at the University of Massachusetts. The researchers determined that 10,000 steps a day may not be the ideal standard for every single human. Older adults, it seems, only actually need to aim for 6,000-8,000 steps in order to increase longevity and boost health, but younger people need more like 8,000-10,000, according to the study. That's not to say that walking more will hurt you — it definitely won't. But if you’re getting less, what you really need to aim for is not 10,000, but simply more.

“Just getting more steps than you are currently getting will be beneficial,” says. Todd Buckingham, an exercise physiologist in Wyoming. “If you’re only getting 2,000 steps per day currently, trying to get 3,000 or 4,000 would be a good starting goal,” he says. What Buckingham and the other experts I spoke with for this article all seemed to agree on is that what the optimal daily step count study confirms is that while 10,000 steps a day may not be magic, exercise can definitely improve your health in extraordinary ways.

“Exercise, including walking, is one of the most powerful medicines in the world,” says Buckingham. “It improves mood, cardiovascular health, joint health, and metabolism,” he says and then goes on to list another dozen or so benefits of exercise. Buckingham is not exaggerating. That exercise can do all that has been proven by science ad nauseum, and walking just happens to be one of the most accessible ways to exercise for most people.

“Walking is the most universal form of exercise that can be done across the lifespan without equipment,” says Palazzo. Buckingham agrees. “You can do it anywhere,” he says. He tells me a story about his mom: She didn’t want to walk outside last week because it was too cold, but she knew she needed exercise. “Instead, she put on a movie and just walked around the living room. And that’s totally fine!” he says.

Basically, exercise is great for your health and walking is a great way to get exercise. There’s no magic about it. It’s science. Science also tells us that there are no mythological benchmarks for achieving optimal health. Any exercise helps. If 10,000 steps a day is a fun and achievable goal for you, that’s amazing. If it’s not, Buckingham explains, “getting some steps is better than getting none.”