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Do we need to walk 10,000 steps?

By Darren O'Toole | In Fitness, Health | on May 27, 2019

Over recent years the 10,000 step phenomena has taken full grip. It’s a target for the inactive, it counts as ‘cardio’ for the fitness models who fear their heart rate exceeding 140 beats per minute and their muscles just wasting away, and it also helps to sell a heck of a lot of fitness trackers.

My issue with 10k steps has always arisen on city breaks. I amble around shops, cafes, tourist attractions and by the end of the day have often hit upwards of 20k steps. However, very little of it is classified as ‘exercise. So, are these steps actually contributing to the improvement of my health?

The 10k step experiment

Interested to know this, I performed a mini experiment on my recent trip to Seville. I didn’t consciously slow down my walking, but I was very aware to check my watch when I reached 10k steps. Once I had, it had equated to 18 minutes of exercise. And by exercise, it means that anything that has increased my heart rate and breathing which would attribute to a healthier cardio-respiratory system – not like a gym session – an intensity that anyone could achieve and would garner health benefits. The daily recommendations are for 30-minutes of this type of activity at least 5 days per week. I’d reached the 10,000 steps and was still 12 minutes short of a minimum requirement. In fact, it took me until 16,872 steps before I achieved this 30-minutes.

Fast-forward to this morning. I decided to powerwalk for 30-minutes. Nothing crazy, but I got my heart rate north of 120 beats per minute. Enough to be a little breathless, but not so vigorous that I need a shower afterwards. This time, to get to the 30-minutes of health prospering exercise, I only needed to walk 3,938 steps. A huge difference from the 10k step goal advocated by so many!

Japanese study

So where did 10k steps come from?

Well it all stemmed from a research team at Kyushu University of Health and Welfare who began to investigate the potential benefits of taking 10k steps. They concluded that the average Japanese person took between 3,500 and 5,000 steps a day, and that if these people increased their daily step count to 10,000, they could decrease their risk of coronary artery disease. Everyone then said, ‘oh, 10k steps will decrease the risk of coronary heart disease, we should advocate this step count!’.

But consider these variables that weren’t investigated:

Could 8k steps be just as good as 10k? Could 10k be less effective than 12k? Or what if these same Japanese people were asked to perform the same number of steps but just a little quicker – enough to elicit a rise in their heart rate to warrant calling it exercise? Would this have come to a different conclusion? Most likely.

Completing 10k steps can be a useful target. If you were previously hitting 4-5k steps then you will be increasing your activity two-fold. But would ambling to this figure be beneficial? Or would it potentially demoralise someone who was getting no ‘results’ despite hitting this figure because the heart rate failed to reach three figures.


My advice would be about ‘intention’ and focus on the 30-minutes as the key benchmark. 30 minutes of intended, focused walking at an intensity that you are physically aware of your activity levels. The easiest conceivable split for workers – 15 minutes on the way to work, 15 minutes on the way home. This may be getting off 1,2 or even 3 tube or bus stops early – but the reality of that is that you are only really likely to be adding 10 minutes time to your journey each way. A 20-minute time sacrifice to undertake your 30-minutes of activity in order to prolong your life due to your healthier heart, lungs and potentially waistline. Seems a fair deal, I reckon!

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