Where did 10,000 steps come from and should we continue with it?

People walking around their living rooms aimlessly at the end of each day to reach 10,000 steps has now crept into the normalities of society. It’s just as much a fitness goal as it is a psychological one - but where did it come from? Just how good is walking for us? And is 10,000 really the magic number?

The origin of walking 10,000 steps 

Many sources claim that it dates back to the 60s when Japan was hosting the Tokyo Olympics, during a time of increased focus on fitness for the general Japanese Population. 

There was a marketing campaign, conducted shortly before the start of the games, promoting a pedometer called the Manpo-kei ‘man’ meaning 10,000, ‘po’ meaning steps and ‘kei’ meaning meter. It was a largely successful campaign and the number seems to have certainly stuck.

The health benefits of walking 

Although originally derived from a marketing campaign, walking in itself does carry considerable health benefits such as improved balance; increased heart and lung fitness; reduced risk of heart disease and stroke; stronger bones; improved management of conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, joint and muscular pain or stiffness, and diabetes. 

And research shows we would all benefit from picking up the pace on our walks too. A study published in the Mayo Clinic’s Medical Journal concluded that ”Participants reporting brisk walking pace had longer life expectancies across all levels of BMIs, ranging from 86.7 to 87.8 years in women and 85.2 to 86.8 years in men. Conversely, subjects reporting slow walking pace had shorter life expectancies.”

The mental health benefits of walking 

We cannot ignore the tremendous mental health benefits that walking carries too. According to Walking for Health, walking improves self-perception, self-esteem, energy, mood and sleep quality; as well as reducing stress, anxiety and fatigue. 

Physically active people also have up to a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed, and staying active helps those who are depressed recover., as well as reducing your risk of stress, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

"If I’m stressed or anxious, going for a walk and listening to music is the best antidote."

- James Acaster, Comedian

"When the sun is shining and you can be outside, be outside."

- From Matt Haig’s ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’

Over the last couple of years, many of us have discovered these benefits for ourselves. So much so that the YouGov survey revealed that 30% of respondents want access to more green spaces.

This is unsurprising when we consider just how important getting outdoors and walking (activities that would fall inside the social prescribing* remit) is for our health and wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation revealed that more than two-thirds of adult men in the UK say that since the pandemic, connecting with nature has been important for managing their mental health. 

With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the NHS England Long Term Plan includes “at least 900,000 people will be referred to social prescribing by 2023/24”. 

Why should we walk 10,000 steps?

So, we know that walking is certainly worth its while and we want more green spaces to do it in, but must we be fixated on doing 10,000 steps worth?

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mortality rates progressively improved before levelling off at approximately 7,500 steps per day and women who averaged 4,400 daily steps had a 41% reduction in mortality. There were also roughly nine fewer deaths per 1,000 person-years in the most active group compared with the least active group.

Notice that there was no mention of 10,000 steps. Prof Catrine Tudor-Locke of the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring at the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains:

“This number keeps being reinforced because of the way research studies are designed. So, the study might find that 10,000 helps you lose more weight than 5,000 and then the media see it and report: ‘Yes, you should go with 10,000 steps,’ but that could be because the study has only tested two numbers. It didn’t test 8,000, for example, and it didn’t test 12,000.”

In essence, walking is good for you and doing a lot of it will of course benefit you. Whilst 10,000 steps is an excellent goal, it appears that we may be fixating a little too hard on this ‘magic’ number. It’s also worth noting that the NHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week, so it could be beneficial to see just how many steps you can complete in that timeframe. 

*If you’re looking to deploy social prescribing services on a flexible, secure, and customisable platform, you know where to come. Contact us here.