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10k Steps a Day: A Realistic Goal?

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Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH - Blogs
By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistOctober 16, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Last week when WebMD announced a 10k steps per day challenge for employees, I got a pedometer and planned to sign up. I’m an active, health-conscious woman, so I thought 10k steps a day shouldn’t be a big deal. Turns out, it is.

I’m surprised to find that I’m struggling to reach 10,000 steps in a day. On a day that I’ve worked out, I’m getting 6,000 steps, and on a non-exercise day, I’m really low – like barely 1,000 steps. What is wrong with me?

Hold on… that wasn’t a nice thing to say! I shouldn’t be so self-critical. After all, I wouldn’t talk to a patient like that. If I put on my doctor hat – with the goal to be an empathetic, thoughtful problem-solver, I start to speak to myself a little differently:

Arefa, let’s look at the big picture. You sit at a computer many hours every day – that’s considered a sedentary job. And also important, you’re a working mom, that’s tough – no way around it, your time is limited.

Arefa, so what are your goals?

1. You want to wear the same size you wore before the sedentary job – and a little vanity is all right, the health benefits of losing the weight are great.

2. You feel good when you exercise. It’s great for your mental health; and you’re definitely nicer to the people around you.

3. You want to keep up with your kids – hiking, biking, and swimming. That’s as important for their health as yours so that’s good.

Arefa, let’s rethink this. Will adding the 10k step challenge to your schedule for a month get you to your goals?

That question made me shift gears. And it made me ask more questions: Is there any evidence from studies to show that taking 10,000 steps a day really works for people? Do they lose weight? Are they healthier?

Why walk 10,000 steps? When I did some research, I was surprised to find that the 10,000 steps goal didn’t come from scientific world –  it came from a brilliant marketing campaign for the Manpo-kei (10,000 steps meter) pedometer sold in Japan back in the 1960s. The campaign started a walking club craze there. Vintage devices are still available on EBay now, 50 years later.

So, is walking 10,000 steps even a legitimate goal? 10,000 steps is about 5 miles – a difficult goal to reach on a daily basis even with regular exercise. No wonder I was frustrated! And it turns out in studies, a lot of people get frustrated. In fact, workplace walking challenges are known for attracting the already physically active employees and sidelining the ones who find 10k steps too lofty a goal.

There is a silver lining, though. When people are given pedometers to measure their steps and given a goal to reach, like 10,000 steps, they do increase their walking. One study showed an increase of about 2000 steps or a mile. And this improvement was associated with a statistically significant, although small, loss in weight and decrease in blood pressure.

What’s key to note is that the 2000-step increase didn’t necessarily get people to the 10,000-step goal. But it did get them health benefits. That extra walking can counter the ill effects of sitting at a desk all day. And increasing physical activity is good for lots of illnesses: obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, prediabetes/diabetes, osteoporosis and depression.

Will I keep tracking my steps? Now that I’m not super-focused on getting to 10k steps, I think I will. Trackers are easy to use, and I love the feedback. Now, there’s no denying when I’ve had a slow moving day again – my pedometer tells me how many steps I walked. And that knowledge gives me power to adjust my schedule. If I can’t get my regular workout into the day, at least I can sneak in a mile here and there and give myself a pat on the back for keeping my goals in mind.

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About the Author
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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