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The science on 10,000 steps a day

How many steps should we be taking a day, according to research?

17 September 2021

We all know that exercise is key to staying heart healthy.

But is reaching the magic number of 10,000 daily steps based on any scientific research, or is it just a marketing gimmick?

The answer it seems is a mixture of both.

The marketing of 10,000 Steps

The idea that walking 10,000 steps should be a daily goal came from a Japanese campaign from the 1960s, according to Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard paleoanthropologist.

Lieberman claims that the Japanese phrase, Manpo-Kei (or 10,000-step-meter in English) was invented by the maker of the first commercial pedometer who chose it because it sounded catchy.

It caught on with the many 'Steptember' challenges of 10,000 steps, now a global phenomenon, and one that many staff here at the Institute have embraced for the month.

But, if it was an invention, how many steps are actually optimal for our health and what’s the evidence to back it up?

How many steps are optimal per day?

The George Institute for Global Health did some analysis back in 2015 which seemed to suggest that upping your daily step count to 10,000 could have a huge impact on your health.

The study published in PLOS One was the first time researchers made the link between exercise, measured directly through pedometers, and reduced mortality over time in people who appeared healthy at the outset.

The study which monitored 3,000 Australians with pedometers over five years found:

  • A sedentary person who increased his or her steps from 1,000 to 10,000 per day had a 46% lower mortality risk
  • A sedentary person who increased his or her steps to 3,000 per day, five days a week had a 12% reduction in death

These findings are especially pertinent given they were found to be independent of other risk factors such as body mass index and smoking.

What's the minimum amount of steps I should do a day?

Research published in JAMA in 2019 claims that just 7,000-8,000 steps is enough to improve your health.

The study, focusing on older women, again found that those who completed 4,400 steps a day had lower death rates over a four-year follow-up period than those who completed 2,700 or fewer steps. But interestingly the health benefits appeared to max out at 7,500 steps a day.

Last year, a further study also published in JAMA, found that completing around 8000-12,000 thousand steps a day was linked to a lower mortality rate than those doing 4,000 a day. 

And only this month a JAMA Network Open study showed that middle-aged people taking at least 7000 steps a day, versus those taking less than 7,000, had a 50-70% lower risk of death. But the research team also noted: “Taking more than 10,000 steps per day was not associated with further reduction in mortality risk.”

As most of you know, the devil may be in the detail, in these studies, but it does seem clear that if you haven’t already, put on a pair of trainers, get outside and get moving.


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