10,000 steps a day (about five miles) has been promoted as the way to a healthy heart and to reduce body fat, not only by the British Heart Foundation, but also by various food products1. It can also help to lower, and prevent, high blood pressure and to avoid onset of, and control, type 2 diabetes. But are things as simple as that?
Those 10,000 steps a day should include 30 minutes of brisk walking a day. It doesn't have to be in one go, it can be done in three lots of ten minutes, but as it has to be brisk, anything less than ten minutes is not likely to be of any use. It needs to be brisk, rather than a stroll, because walking briskly increases the body's demand for oxygen, making your heart, lungs and muscles work more efficiently.
All steps do count, because any sort of walking is better than sitting still watching TV, but not all steps are equal. Many people who work on their feet could well exceed the 10,000 steps a day, but if they are at a stroll, they will not bring much benefit. Similarly, spending the day browsing in a shopping centre could bring in many thousands of steps, but the walking is just too slow to bring about any changes in the health of the walker.
Counting Steps That Count
Brisk walking is the sort of walking we do when we're late for something. A good way to know if you are walking at the correct speed is to try to hold a conversation. Your heart rate should be raised during brisk walking, with your breathing increased too, and you should begin to feel warm from the exertion. You should be able to walk and talk at the same time without getting out of breath. If you can't, then you are going faster than you need to.
The average person walks only between 3,500 and 5,000 steps a day, which is considered to be a sedentary lifestyle. Over 5,000 and under 8,000 is considered 'normal' daily activity, with over 8,000 and under 10,000 being considered 'somewhat active'. This level of steps would normally include some deliberate exercise or a job which included a lot of walking. Over 10,000 means you are 'active', with anything over 12,500 being 'highly active'.
There seems to be no scientific reason why 10,000 steps particularly were chosen. Research by Dr Catrine Tudor-Locke has shown that 6,000 steps a day can reduce the death rate in men. It appears to link back to the promotion of pedometers in Japan. Dr. Yoshiro Hatano wanted to know how many calories were burnt through brisk walking, in an attempt to halt the rising levels of obesity in his country. It was his research 40 years ago that shows that most people only walk around 3,500 to 5,000 steps a day. Unlike the English language, the Japanese have a separate word for 10,000 - 'man' - which could be why that particular number was chosen. Add in the Japanese love of technology and the 'Manpo-kei' (10,000 steps meter) as we know it was born2.
Does it Have to Be 10,000?
It may be that you don't need to do 10,000 steps every day to gain in fitness, reduce the risk of heart disease or lose weight. Just adding 30 minutes of brisk walking3 to your day might only add 2,000 - 3,000 steps to your total, which could mean that if you usually fall into the 'sedentary' category you could be doing well under 10,000. However, this will have an impact on your health and could encourage people to walk more. 10,000 steps is an awful lot, and many people who have jobs could be put off if they find they have to get home from work and do another 5,000 steps (around two and a half miles) and simply not bother. However, once you have included a 30 minute daily walk into your lifestyle, there is no reason why it can't be increased gradually.
10,000 is not always suitable for everyone. People who are very overweight, are chronically ill or aged may find it is too much. For children, it could well be too few steps - girls could need as many as 12,000, with boys needing 15,000 to stay at a healthy weight.
A pedometer is a small device worn on the hip, which measures the amount of steps you take, by working on body movement. They can simply count the number of steps taken, or some are more sophisticated and can tell you how many calories you've burnt and work out how far you've walked. Some also tell the time! Be warned, as they can be inaccurate. If you wear one all day, you'll find simply visiting the loo can add a few steps to your total as your clothes are rustled, driving also seems to add to the total, and putting your hands in your pockets to play with your small change will also increase your steps. They never count uphill or steps on stairs as being harder work than steps on the level.
They can be addictive.
Finding the Extra Steps
Wondering how you can add extra steps to your day is a problem many people face. Here are a few suggestions for brisk walking:
Try to walk some of the way to work or school - even if it's just the second nearest bus stop.
Walk the dog, or someone else's dog if you don't have one (remembering to scoop the poop).
Walk up or down the stairs, rather than taking the lift.
Take a walk with your partner, friends, or children.
Walk to the shops or pub, or park further away.
Take a walk at lunchtime - don't buy lunch on the way in, but make a special trip to get it.
And just adding any old steps:
Don't wait until you get up to do a few bits and pieces. Get up and do them individually as they occur.
Leave the remote controls on top of the gadgets they control, and get up to change the TV channel, etc.
Walk around the garden.
If possible, don't email or phone colleagues but go over and visit them. You could take a cup of tea with you if you are unsure of your welcome. The walk to the kitchen adds yet more steps.
If you are very overweight or have any other concerns about your health, do speak to your GP before embarking on any form of exercise.
Walking is a very safe activity, virtually risk-free. All you need is a comfortable pair of walking shoes that fit well. You could try well-cushioned trainers if you are going to be walking on hard surfaces. You will be using muscles you use every day, so no need to worry about straining muscles that haven't done very much - half the muscles in the body are specifically designed for walking. If you haven't exercised for a long time, you may want to stagger any increase in walking. For instance, if you are counting steps, work out what you normally do per day, and then add 500, or 1,000 to that and make that your target for the next day. Once you've been doing that for a week, or however long feels comfortable, add another 500 to your target. If you are aiming for an extra 30 minutes, start with ten minutes brisk walking, and add five or ten minutes each time you are comfortable.
As most people walk every day, you don't need to worry too much about warming up before you start, but it may be a good idea to walk at a normal pace for five to ten minutes before stepping up to brisk. Then slow down to normal pace five or ten minutes before you finish, depending on how long you are walking for. Remember that your 30 minutes should all be brisk, so a slow warm up and cool down should add to the total walking time.
Remember that a little walking every day is preferable to saving all your steps up and doing them in one go at the weekend.
1 Interestingly, by both low-fat foods, such as healthy cereals, and by 'junk' food, such as crisps.
2 Rumour has it that Leonardo da Vinci invented the first one.
3 30 minutes is the least you should do to protect your heart, but doing the full 10,000 steps can only be beneficial.