Is 10,000 REALLY a Magic Number When It Comes to Your Health?

Do you wear a fitness tracker? If so, do you love the little celebration it gives you at the end of the day when you’ve hit that magical target of 10,000 steps? And do you feel a little bummed if you don’t get to that goal? It’s understandable – we all want to feel like we’re doing the best we can for our health, and we’ve been told that walking at least 10,000 steps a day is one vital way of doing that. But have you ever stopped to think: why 10,000 steps? Is it really a magic number – and is reaching that target enough to keep you fighting fit?

The History of the Magic Number

So that magic number of 10,000 – it must be rooted in solid, scientific research, right? Well, you might be surprised to know that there is not really a whole lot of scientific evidence to back up any claims that 10,000 steps (or around 5 miles) is any better than any other amount of steps, or that it is superior to moving your body in other ways. In fact, the idea that we need to specifically take 10,000 steps a day is actually a decades-old marketing ploy!

woman holding a pedometer on her waist that says 10,000 steps today on it
A Japanese company marketed a pedometer, and the name translated to 10,000 steps meter, which is where it all began.

Way back in the 1960s, a Japanese company called Yamasa Clock wanted to capitalize on a fitness craze that took hold after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and began marketing a pedometer, which they called “Manpo-kei.” Why that name? Apparently, the Japanese characters for that name both look like a person walking AND just so happen to translate to the phrase “10,000 steps meter.” The pedometer took off, and that number somehow stuck in our collective consciousness as the fitness goal we all need to shoot for.


That’s not to say that there isn’t any evidence that taking 10,000 steps is beneficial to your health. We all know that moving more is always better, and some studies investigating this specific step target have shown it improves heart health, mental health, and even lowers diabetes risk – so maybe that’s why we haven’t forgotten about this random number. And, after all, walking around 5 miles a day should translate to walking for around 2 hours a day for the average person, which sounds like a pretty good amount of exercise. 

But do you really need to hit that specific target, or can you tell your FitBit to relax if you don’t hit it – and could that goal actually be giving you a false sense of security when it comes to your fitness level?

Is It Really Necessary to Hit 10,000?

Ok, so first the good news about your step count: the most recent research suggests that you don’t actually have to hit 10,000 steps to reap the health benefits of walking. And that is definitely good news for a lot of us: most recent studies show that people in the U.S. tend to only hit 5,000 steps a day at most, with many of us hovering in the 3,000-6,000 step range. And a famous 2005 study out of Belgium found that only 8% of people who were encouraged to reach 10,000 steps everyday for a year actually hit that target; not only that, but virtually none of the participants were hitting that mark four years after the study.

But there is some promising research into the benefits of any moderate amount of walking. For example, a 2019 study led by Dr. I-Min Lee, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that, for older women, taking as few as 4,400 steps a day reduced the risk of premature death by about 40%, compared to women who completed only 2,700 or fewer steps a day. two sets of feet going up stairs with the words "step by step" on it

Interestingly enough, though, while the risks for early death continued to drop among women who walked more than 5,000 steps a day, the benefits seemed to max out at around 7,500 steps. In other words, older women who completed fewer than half of that magical 10,000 steps lived a lot longer than those who walked less, but those who got closer to that number didn’t really see a whole lot more in benefits.

And in another 2020 study of nearly 5,000 adults, the people who walked for about 8,000 steps a day were half as likely to die prematurely from heart disease or any other cause as those who walked only 4,000 steps a day. But those who hit their 10,000 steps, or more? The additional benefits were so statistically slight that it didn’t really make any difference. So, it seems that walking a lot is definitely beneficial, but there is no magic number that you have to feel bound by (sorry, fitness tracker!)

And Is Hitting a Step Count Enough to Keep You Healthy?

Nobody is denying that walking is good for you, so we’re not suggesting you stop! And if having an easy to remember goal each day for moving your body, like taking 10,000 steps, works for you, then go for it! After all, according to Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard paleoanthropologist who has studied the evolution of exercise, “We all have deep fundamental instincts to avoid unnecessary activity, so we need those nudges to help people get started.”

With that being said, focusing solely on your step count can become a little problematic. While the small, everyday things that you do to move your body (like walk to work, park further away, or take the stairs) do add up and make a difference, just getting in a certain number of steps won’t necessarily mean you’re as healthy as you can be, or that you’re going to meet any fitness or weight loss goals. Consider the following:

How much you sit the rest of the day matters – 

If you are very sedentary for the rest of your day (especially if you’re not moving much for over 13 hours of it), you probably won’t reap the benefits of even a full hour of exercise a day or a specific number of steps.

What other kind of exercise you get matters

woman sitting on a bench lifting weights with a man standing behind her for assistance.
The DHHS and the WHO recommends doing strength-training exercise (such as lifting weights, or doing exercises that use your own bodyweight) twice a week.

The Department of Health and Humans Services (DHHS), and the World Health Organization (WHO) both agree that you need at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking or swimming) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running or dance cardio class) every week, plus they recommend doing strength-training exercise (such as lifting weights, or doing exercises that use your own bodyweight) twice a week. That’s in addition to moving around in the course of your daily life, meaning you should probably be tacking around 2,000-3,000 steps onto your step count everyday, if you’re set on counting steps.

In addition, if you’re looking to lose weight, or keep weight off, you might need to do more exercise – but with that being said, maintaining a healthy weight is ultimately more about what you put in your mouth than getting in a certain number of steps or workouts. 

And remember: there are all sorts of types of exercise that are great for you, but won’t increase your step count, like biking or swimming, so don’t forget to do what you enjoy – that’s what will keep you coming back for more, and keep you fit!

Your intensity level matters 

While it’s true that it’s very hard to counteract being extremely sedentary, research has shown that people who do 60-75 minutes per day of moderate intensity physical activity can eliminate the increased risk of death that comes with sitting for 8 or more hours a day (those who sit for that longer have a 59% higher chance of premature death compared with those who sit for just 4 hours a day). 

It’s important to note, however, that you need to be working out at at least a moderate level of intensity – so that means wandering through the grocery store or around the park might not be enough. After all, you could technically get 10,000 steps in a day without really elevating your heart rate or keeping it up for long; not only that, but the equivalent of that recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity is actually 300 minutes of brisk walking. 

According to professor Paul Gordon, an exercise physiologist and chair of Baylor University’s Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation, “I would encourage engaging in weekly activities that will increase heart rate for a continuous period of time.” 

The takeaway? Walking is great for your health – no one is encouraging anyone to do it less, and keeping track of your steps can be an excellent first step in achieving your health and fitness goals. In fact, if you’re the average American walking about 5,000 steps a day, you’re in a pretty good position to add in the equivalent of a few thousand extra steps by getting your recommended daily dose of exercise, thereby reducing your chances of all sorts of health risks. So don’t feel boxed in by a number on a fitness tracker, and remember to vary your types of exercise and eat well – but also don’t stop striding toward your fitness goals!

Are You Working Out Too Hard? Not Hard Enough? Finding Out What’s Right for You

Have you been getting in your recommended dose of exercise these days? Or are you feeling a little too sedentary and are ready to start moving? Either way, that’s great! The newest guidelines from the World Health Organization recommend 150 – 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, or 75 – 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week, so we should all be aiming for that to keep us at optimal health. But hang on – moderate? Vigorous? What does that mean, and which is better? And what about low intensity? Is that type of exercise right/beneficial for some? It sounds like a lot to think about when planning your daily exercise routine, but knowing the benefits, disadvantages, and risks of each exercise intensity level can help you get the most from the time you spend moving your body.

The Benefits of Exercise

graph of different workout minutes
The more you exercise within a week, the longer your life expectancy is.

Before we get into the different types of exercise, let’s start off by saying that physical activity of any kind is beneficial. And that’s not just opinion, there is a lot of scientific evidence to back it up. For example, in a JAMA Internal Medicine study, researchers pooled data from six studies and found that over a 14-year period, people who never exercised were at the highest risk of death. If that sounds scary, there’s hope that you can easily turn things around: those who did just a little exercise lowered their risk of death by 20%.

Not only that, but adding a little extra workout time was even more beneficial. People who completed at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise – the lowest WHO recommended amount – were 31% less likely to die than inactive people during the 14-year follow-up period. But those who kicked it up to at least 450 minutes of moderate exercise each week were 39% less likely to die.

Add to these statistics the many other benefits of exercise, like a healthier heart, stronger bones, and improved mood, and it becomes pretty clear that moving your body is the way to go. But just how should you be moving your body?

How Intense Is Your Workout?

watch on someone's hand with the number 74 on it and bpm under the 74
The best way to know if your are getting a good workout is by measuring your heart rate.

Let’s first look at what intensity level means when it comes to exercise. There are generally two different ways to determine the intensity level of your workout. The first, and easier, of the two is the “talk test,” which basically means you’re measuring how hard you’re working out by how hard it is for you to carry on a conversation. According to Dr. Meagan Wasfy of the cardiovascular performance program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, “With low-intensity activities, most people will still be able to sing and converse. At moderate intensity, you can still speak but can’t sing, and at high intensity, you can’t speak in full sentences anymore.” Although, who wants to carry on a conversation in the middle of burpees?!

The other way to determine how hard you are working is a little more technical. You’ll need to measure your heart rate, which you can do with a heart rate monitor (many smartwatches have this function), or with a little simple math. Just find your pulse on your wrist or neck and count the number of beats for 10 seconds, and then multiply that number by six for beats per minute (BPM). 

The next step is to do a little more math (sorry!), and determine your maximum heart rate (MHR) so you know how hard you should be working for each type of exercise. All you need to do to determine that is to subtract your age from 220. So, for example, if you’re 40, your maximum heart rate, or the absolute highest rate of intensity you should be achieving, is 180 BPM. 

So let’s take a closer look at what it means for exercise to be low, moderate, and high intensity, and what you should be shooting for. 

Low-Intensity Exercise

There is actually a technical way to determine how intense your exercise is: it’s calculated as a percentage of your maximum heart rate while you’re working out. That means more math! For low-intensity workouts, your heart rate will be at 30-50% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). So to go back to the example of a 40-year-old, you would take 180 (your MHR) and multiple it by 0.30 or 0.50 to get a target heart rate of 54-90 BPM. caucasian woman floating in waterIn addition to that scientific way of classifying high-intensity exercise, you can also think about the types of movements you’re doing. Low-intensity workouts are also sometimes described as “low impact,” meaning you generally aren’t taking both feet off the ground at the same time. Movements tend to be more fluid, as opposed to jarring, and can include things like lighter yoga, low-resistance cycling, leisurely swimming, and casual walking.

Who low-intensity exercise is right for: This type of exercise is great for beginners or even those who think they can’t exercise because of chronic pain; in fact, a review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews points out that aerobic exercise improved the quality of life for those in chronic pain by improving physical function and reducing stiffness and fatigue. Low-intensity workouts can also be used as a way for more advanced exercises to recover from injury, as a way to focus on balance and flexibility, as a way to recover from other workouts on days off, or as a way to boost your aerobic capacity so you can do other things for longer. 

It carries very little risk of injury, making it a safe option for anyone; according to Ben Walker, a personal trainer and owner of Anywhere Fitness in Dublin, Ireland, “Low-intensity exercise reduces the risk of injury while preparing your body for more intense activities.” You might be surprised to know that low-intensity workouts actually primarily burn fat cells as a fuel source, so there’s lots of reasons why they’re a good place to start on your workout journey.

The disadvantages: While any type of movement is great, especially when you’re just starting out with a workout regime, low-intensity exercise didn’t have the same dramatic health effects as even moderate-intensity exercises, according to the studies we looked above. In addition, if you’re only doing these types of workouts, you might boost your heart health, but actually do the opposite for your muscle tissue. So, while low intensity is a great place to start on getting moving and burning excess fat, you don’t want to remain stagnant at this level of exercise; you should try to progress to more taxing workouts at some point if you are able. 

Moderate-Intensity Exercise

The next level of intensity would be considered “moderate,” when you are working at 50-70% of your MHR. That means kicking things up a notch: walking more vigorously, taking a more intense hike, playing tennis, or doing some aerobic dancing, for example. You’re still generally not taking both feet off the ground at once, but your heart is definitely pumping more than it would be during a fully low-impact workout.caucasian woman playing tennis on a tennis courtThe benefits: Bumping up your heart rate to that moderate range comes with a lot of advantages over low-intensity exercise. Not only will those longer, more intense workouts help you reap all of the benefits of the studies above, but you’ll switch from using just fat cells when working out to burning off fat, carbohydrates, and sugar. So if weight loss is your goal, you’ll get there faster by working out in this range. 

The disadvantages: There’s not much negative to say about moderate-level exercise, except that it carries a higher risk of injury than low-intensity workouts, and that it will not give you the same muscle-building, strengthening, and body-fat-lowering results that high-intensity workouts will. 

If your goal is to just to lose a few extra pounds or get in your recommended dose of heart-healthy exercise time, and moderate-intensity workouts are what you enjoy most, then go for it! But you might find at some point that you’re ready to progress to working to your full potential by adding in some high-intensity workouts.

High-Intensity (or Vigorous-Intensity) Exercise

For high-intensity exercise, you should be working out at 75-100% of your maximum heart rate (remember how you shouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation?), so that means you’re going to be doing some serious work. In many cases, you’ll be doing movements that require taking both feet off the ground, like running, jumping rope, or doing any kind of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, with or without weights. pair of legs running on asphaltThe benefits: Working out this hard means you’re going to get the best results when it comes to fat loss and muscle building. You’ll also boost your metabolism for hours after your high-intensity workout! In addition, research shows that high-impact exercises such as sprinting are also beneficial for the health of your bones: it might sound slightly surprising, but applying stress to your bones actually helps improve bone density. Again according to Ben Walker, “By training at maximum capacity, you increase potential for muscle growth and weight loss by breaking down more muscle fibers.”

The disadvantages: High-intensity exercise is great, but it can be taxing on your body, and for many people, should be limited to 3 or 4 days a week. It carries a much higher risk of injury; after all, high-impact movements create a force equal to about 2.5 times your bodyweight, which can put a lot of stress on your joints, ligaments and tendons. If you’ve got joint problems, like arthritis, you should probably stick to more moderate, less high-impact movements.

So what’s right for you? Well, first talk to your doctor. Then, assess your current fitness level and always start out slow if you’re new to any kind of exercise. Choose your intensity level based on your goals, whether that is weight loss, gaining muscle, improving flexibility, training for a specific sport, or just boosting your heart health.  But, when it comes down to it, any type of movement is great for your body and mind, so get out there and do what you enjoy!