The Truth About Those Trackers—Is 10,000 Steps a Day Really Enough?

Last Update: October 12, 2021

Little plastic wristbands with flashing LEDs are suddenly hotter than designer handbags. Whether it’s a FitBit, a Jawbone, or an Apple watch, these fitness trackers are keeping score when it comes to movement.

Most users are probably shooting for the same goal: the 10,000 steps per day milestone. The general consensus seems to be that no matter who you are, if you’re squeezing in at least that many steps each day, you should be in relatively good health.

The truth is that it’s just not that simple.

For starters, the origin of the 10,000-steps-per-day idea is a bit arbitrary, and has very little scientific backing. As LSU Pennington Biomedical Center professor Catrine Tudor-Locke recently explained in The Huffington Post, the recommendation actually stems from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when a pedometer, known as a man-po-kei, was invented. In translation, “man” signified 10,000, while “po” was steps and “kei” was gauge.

Why the number 10,000? In Japanese culture, 10,000 is an auspicious number—the phrase “banzai,” which literally translates to “ten thousand years of life,” is a kind of celebratory chant. Historically, it was used to wish emperors and nobility well. Early marketers of the man-po-kei likely thought this would help the new device sell.

So essentially, 10,000 steps a day is a pretty arbitrary goal. And it fails to take into account one very important element: diet.

For starters, American culture in 2015 is much different from the Japanese lifestyle in the 1960s, when pedometers were invented. While the average Japanese citizen consumed roughly 2,600 calories each day in the 1960s, these days, the average American is consuming more than 3,600.

In other words, the old recommendations just don’t stack up in today’s world. You can exercise every day until you’re sweating buckets, but if you chow down on a greasy hamburger on the way home, you’re likely not going to see any health benefits from the exertion.

Of course, that’s not to say that moving more every day is a bad idea. Exercise is not only good for our physical health, but also boosts our emotional and mental well-being. But just as no one workout suits everyone, neither does hitting a specific number of prescribed steps per day. We each have unique health challenges, goals, and genetic make-ups, making exercise far from a one-size-fits-all affair.

The bottom line here? By all means, keep moving, and even shoot for the 10,000 step goal if you think it will help you. But don’t forget to keep in mind what’s on your fork, as well.

Photo credit: hopefuldz9er via Flickr

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Jennifer Still

Jennifer Still is a writer and editor with an obsession with iced coffee, bad TV, and getting up way too early. You may know her from HelloGiggles, Bustle, Buzzfeed, xo Jane, or, or you may not know her at all. Either way, you can follow her on Twitter @jenniferlstill.

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