Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Positive things from science – Why you can (almost) forget the 10,000 step rule

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Have you not walked quite as diligently in the last few days? Half as bad. A meta-analysis shows: You don’t need 10,000 steps a day to live a healthy life.

Has your smartwatch been rather sparing with applause lately because you swapped your daily goal of 10,000 steps for a comfortable lounge on the couch? No reason to panic.

A large-scale meta-analysis by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which compared 15 studies with over 50,000 people, shows: The optimal daily number of steps is just 7,000 to 8,000 steps.

For seniors, 6,000 steps are enough to increase the chances of a “healthy life” and reduce the risk of “early death,” according to the study authors.

But wait a minute: Have we been struggling for years with 10,000 steps a day for nothing, as the WHO recommends?

How can that be?

To clarify this question, we have to start further back – in 1964. Behind the magical 10,000 mark there is no medical research at all, but a marketing coup by the Japanese company Yamasa.

The magic marketing number

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In 1964, Yamasa took advantage of the hype surrounding the Olympic Games in Japan and brought the first pedometer called “Manpo-kei” onto the market. Translated, this means something like “the 10,000 step counter”. The manufacturer argued that exactly this number of steps was healthy and an expression of a healthy lifestyle. Apparently no scientific studies were needed for the assessment.

Although there was no scientific evidence on it, the supposedly arbitrary limit prevailed. Even at the WHO. Where did the recommendation originally come from? Not that important.

What does science say about this?

Since then, countless studies have examined how the perfect (healthy) number of steps, from a scientific point of view, really could look. So far, researchers have disagreed.

Ambiguous study situation

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In May 2019, for example, a study appeared in the specialist magazine “Jama Internal Medicine” that compared the daily number of steps with the risk of death. The average age of the 16,000 US participants was 72 years.

The result: Women who took at least 4,400 steps per day had a lower risk of dying after four years than less active study participants who took 2,700 steps. Interestingly, the statistical advantage increased up to a limit of 7500 steps. Anything beyond that made no difference in life expectancy.

Other studies have also shown in the past that between 6,000 and 8,000 steps per day can be enough to significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Another study that appeared in “Medical & Science” in 2004 rated even the 10,000-step rule as too low. Accordingly, 15,000 to 18,000 steps per day have a particularly beneficial long-term effect on health.

“The fact that the different statements have now been checked through a broad analysis is of course somewhat overdue,” says sports scientist Katrien de Bock from the Department of Health Sciences at ETH Zurich.

Nevertheless, she is not only critical of the Japanese advertising stunt: the fact that the campaign drew attention to our daily activity level years ago is extremely important. Because: “We move far too little.”

On average under 5000 steps

This is also shown by large-scale studies that tracked the physical activity of various age groups using smartwatches. “On average, people around the world take fewer than 5,000 steps per day,” says the exercise expert. So it can’t hurt to set 10,000 steps as your goal.

Why did the requirement work for so long even without scientific evidence? “Counting steps is straightforward.” Easier than calculating whether you have already achieved the 150-minute exercise target recommended by the WHO.

Exception: weight loss

A step goal can help couch potatoes in particular develop awareness of their own activity level, says the sports scientist.

“In fact, most current studies suggest that the additional health benefits diminish as you go beyond 10,000 steps.” But the most important thing is that you move at all.

There is one exception, however: more steps burn more calories, which can affect weight: “If you want to lose weight, every step counts.”


Health Check: If you want to stay healthy, you don’t have to worry about taking 8,000 daily steps.

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The study has another surprising finding: for solid health – including reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases – it doesn’t matter whether we take these 10,000 steps by walking or jogging.

“The study suggests that the intensity of the walking style is not as important as many people might assume,” explains Katrien de Bock.

However, there are currently no studies that have compared the health effects of walking 10,000 steps with the health effects of jogging 10,000 steps.

What is the catch?

And there’s another catch: “The number of steps obviously says less about physical fitness than determining our oxygen consumption,” says the sports scientist. This value is often used to measure endurance performance and provides a better indication of overall physical fitness. When jogging, oxygen consumption tends to be higher than when walking. In other words: the body uses more energy.

So if you want to do rounds today to get rid of the chocolate bunnies, you should stick to the well-known advertising value. Everyone else can take it easy.

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