Who says you need 10,000 steps a day? No, really, where did that number come from?

If you have ever used an activity monitor such as a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, you’re probably familiar with the 10,000 step threshold. Achieving 10,000 steps a day is widely regarded as a standard of physical fitness and an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. The idea of 10,000 steps a day as a scientific measure of health is so commonly reinforced that you might be surprised to learn there is actually no evidence behind it.

Oddly enough, this standard has nothing to do with research and more to do with catchy marketing. Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard, says that the significance of 10,000 steps actually originates from a Japanese clock maker in the 1960s. The clockmaker created a commercial pedometer, named it “10,000 steps”, and the rest is history.

So how many steps do we actually need?

Dr. Lee and her team poured through the Women’s Health Study data collected over the last few decades to determine just that. In that study, women wore activity monitors tracking their total steps everyday for a week. It is worth mentioning that the number of steps was hidden from the women participating in the study, in order to achieve a more authentic result. The study was also massive, with recorded health data from almost 17,000 participants.

In order to measure how daily steps correlate with mortality, Dr. Lee and her team checked the death records from the years following the study. The results were shocking, and didn’t exactly add up to 10,000 steps.

Not surprisingly, the participants who walked the least, around 2,700 steps a day, had the highest mortality rate. What’s more interesting, however, is that the ideal number of steps wasn’t actually all that far away.

The threshold of daily steps that lowers the risk of premature death isn’t even close to 10,000, but is actually just 4,500. Participants who reached the 4,500 steps threshold were approximately 40% less likely to die during the period of time after the study.

A little bit goes a long way

This is not to say that you should stop striving for 10,000 steps a day, but it is encouraging for those who might be intimidated by a new fitness routine. Going from a sedentary lifestyle to 10,000 steps a day can be a daunting task. These findings are a good motivator because they suggest that almost any level of fitness is productive. Keeping in mind that 10,000 steps a day works out to be roughly 5 miles, walking only half that suddenly becomes a very attainable goal. The implications of this study mean that 20 minutes of walking outside or on a treadmill really will change your life.

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