How many steps do we really need to do per day?

Image: iStock.

If you’re one of the many Australians who unwrapped a fitness tracker last Christmas, you’ve probably become more fixated on the number 10,000 than you ever imagined possible.

Even if you don’t own one, there’s a good chance you have a loved one who’s resorted to pacing around the kitchen and walking on the spot at bedtime — eyes glued to their wrist — just to ensure they clock those five magical digits.

“You need 10,000 steps per day” has become embedded in the public’s health consciousness. It’s not just the default goal on fitness trackers — groups like the Heart Foundation recommend it as an optical target.

However, it isn’t quite as straightforward as 10,000 steps per day = ticket to good health.

Professor Adrian Bauman, Sesquicentenary Professor of Public Health at Sydney University, says the 10,000 standard originated in Japan at least 40 years ago.

“People were measuring things including health, but just assembled 10,000 as a nice idea or a nice number. There was no relationship to health outcomes, nor did they really think what that meant to walk 10,000 steps,” he explains.

Watch: A yoga routine that will leave you feeling energised, from Paper Tiger. (Post continues after video.)

Four decades later, the number is still around — but when you compare it to the broader physical activity recommendations that have been developed by health experts over the years, it doesn’t quite stack up.

We are currently advised to do, at minimum, half an hour of at least moderate-intensity activity per day in order to improve our health. This could take the form of cycling, or swimming, or a game of netball, but it also encompasses moderate walking, whether that be to the bus stop or the shops.

“We’re trying to get people to accumulate half an hour a day of moderate intensity activity. That’s the minimum amount to reduce your risk of diabetes, reduce your blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease, improve your mental health and wellbeing,” Professor Bauman says.

It would take roughly an hour and a half, or an hour and three quarters, of continual walking in order to clock up 10,000 steps. Obviously this is longer than the minimum exercise recommendation of 30 minutes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting more health benefits — especially when you consider all those inconsistent movements we make throughout the day add to the total sum.

“We take a lot of steps which are walking to the fridge, the bus, from one room to another that are not actually health-enhancing. You really need to be doing continuous activity or continuous walking for a period of time to get a health benefit,” Professor Bauman explains. An exception to this rule is high-intensity activity over a short period of time — for example, using the stairs instead of taking the lift. (Post continues after gallery.)


Typically, Professor Bauman adds, research indicates around 3000 to 5000 steps out of 10,000 in a day will be performed in a sufficiently continuous manner to benefit your health. And guess what amount of time that equates to? Yep — that’s your 30-40 minutes of moderate intensity activity right there.

“Coincidentally, 10,000 steps is quite a useful measure for most of us, in total, for making sure we’re achieving the 3000-5000 useful health-enhancing steps each day,” he says.

So 10,000 is a number worth aiming for, but keep in mind that each of those steps is not created equal. In fact, if you knocked over 5000 steps with a 40-minute walk and then spent the rest of your day parked on the couch, those steps would be sufficient to deliver health benefits.

Professor Bauman says if you’re meeting the 10,000 step benchmark in a day — which “not many people do” — it’s likely you don’t necessarily require additional exercise on top of that because you’ve covered most minimum health recommendations.

Yet another reason to squeeze a good walk into your day. (Image: iStock)

On the other hand, if you're someone whose job involves hours of sitting, you drive or catch public transport to work, and your hobbies aren't exactly active (Netflix, anyone?), you're probably not going to hit that step count most days. So yes, you'll need to squeeze some exercise in to your day to get your required health benefits.

It's also worth remembering that 10,000 is not a one-size-fits-all steps recommendation. For the average adult, 10,000 steps is considered 'active', while 12,500 steps would class them as 'very active', so it you want to up your game try aiming for that. "That would be the maximum beyond which more steps isn't going to give us much more health benefits," Professor Bauman explains.

However, for people with chronic illness, severe arthritis or who are over the age of 65, 7000 steps is sufficient for their health.

Are you a step counter? How many steps do you aspire to?

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