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Do you really need to walk 10,000 steps a day for good health?

How the United States compares with other countries.

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“If you walk at least 7,500 steps a day, you’re in the money because you’re likely to be meeting  the national guidelines for physical activity,” says Catrine Tudor-Locke.

Those guidelines recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise.  Tudor-Locke studies how the recommendations translate into daily steps at the Walking Behavior Laboratory at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“Walking includes stepping, running, hopping, dancing, anything that’s moving with one step following the other,” she explains.

10,000 steps a day?

Heard that you should aim for 10,000 steps a day? “That was a business slogan that started in the 1960s when a Japanese company introduced a pedometer named ‘10,000 steps meter’ in Japanese,” she says.

More than 7,500 steps a day is fantastic, but not necessary, she notes. “It’s not like there’s a single value where the heavens open up and the angels sing or anything like that, it’s a continuum.”

Adults in the United States, however, average only 5,000 to 6,000 steps per day, the lowest level of any industrialized country that has collected data. “Falling below 5,000 steps is definitely a red flag and less than 2,500 steps a day is a very big concern,” she cautions. It puts you at greater risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and for premature death.

Real power walkers

The group of people who appear to walk the most are the Amish. “They don’t use motorized equipment, they don’t use electricity, so they follow a lifestyle that we may have lived in the past,” says Tudor-Locke. The Amish in southern Ontario, Canada, average about 18,000 steps per day for the men and about 14,000 steps for the women.

For the rest of us, “make sure that at least 3,000 of your daily steps are more than 100 steps per minute,” Tudor-Locke advises. “People who walk at that pace in our studies are walking purposely and going someplace and this equates to moderate intensity. So 3,000 of these steps is basically the same as half an hour a day of moderate intensity exercise.”

However, more than that is better. “We know that the health benefits from walking are greater as you increase the number of steps,” she says. But the nice thing about walking is that you get a big return for even a small investment if you’re starting out with a smaller number of steps and you increase that even modestly.

Pedometers

What’s the best way to count your steps? There are many fancy devices available now, says Tudor-Locke, but you don’t need more than a simple workhorse pedometer. “It can have a single button, it should have a battery that lasts at least three years, and when you put it on and take 20 steps it says you took 19, 20, or 21, which is reasonably close, she advises. “That’s the one you want and expect to pay $20 or $25 max for it.”

Wrist-worn devices are popular now, but these give you a much higher number of steps per day than one that’s worn at the waist. “Just know that it will consistently record a high count,” she notes.

Harder to fool oneself

New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman uses a device to record his steps. “What fitness devices do, at least for me, is make it harder to lie to myself,” he wrote on his blog.

“It’s all too easy to convince yourself that you’ve done enough walking, that shuffling around filing books is a pretty good workout.” But there’s our fitness device telling you that you walked only 6,000 steps that day. “For me, at least, the technology helps a lot, not because of the information, exactly, but because it makes self-deception harder.”

Sources: Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act.8:79, 2011; Med Sci Sports Exerc. 36:79, 2004.