Step back: researcher says 10,000 steps a day isn't optimal for everyone

WATCH: Is walking 10,000 steps a day really worth it?

Ten-thousand steps a day – it’s the magic number cited by manufacturers of fitness trackers, but is there any science behind it?

According to a Harvard University professor, not really.

Dr. I-Min Lee, professor of epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, told 680 CJOB on Wednesday that the 10,000-step goal actually has its roots in a Japanese brand name.

“Many of my colleagues at work also wear these fitness trackers,” she said, “and they have a hard time reaching the 10,000, so we started looking at the background… and it turns out the 10,000 number originated in 1965 in Japan. There was a company that was making pedometers.”

The name of the company’s product translates to “The 10,000 Step Meter” – allegedly so-named because the Japanese character for ‘10,000’ resembles a person walking.

That being said, Lee isn’t opposed to people trying for the 10,000-step goal. If they can do it on a daily basis, she said, that’s great, but her research shows that for the average inactive or less active person, it’s not essential.

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In a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Lee’s research – based on equipping 16,000 American women with research-grade fitness trackers and tracking their mortality rates –  shows that even a minimal increase in activity can have a positive outcome.

“We did our research… and what we found was really striking, that women who got on average 4,400 steps a day had lower (mortality) rates during the study than women who took 2,700 steps a day.

“At a very modest level, your death rate started going down. The more you did, the lower your death rate became, but it sort of tapered off around 7,500 steps – meaning at very low levels you started to see the benefit and you didn’t need the 10,000 to get the maximum benefit.”

I-Min Lee

I-Min Lee

Harvard University

Lee said there’s a big difference between health and fitness. People who are intentionally training for sports or other activities will need to increase their heart rates and will be doing much more high-intensity exercise, but for the average person, the key is just going about your regular day — but adding a little bit extra into whatever you do.

“For people who are very inactive, strive for something a little bit modest so you can do it,” she said.

“Try for an additional 2,000 steps a day. The good news about it is that you don’t need to do it as part of an intentional exercise walk. Go to the garden and walk around a bit. When you park your car, park a little further so you get a few more steps in.”

If you want to challenge yourself, however, Lee says one of the best things about many fitness trackers and step-tracking smartphone apps is the social element.

“One of the good things is that you can have a competitive group going,” she said. “I share my steps with my sister, and I hate it when she gets more steps than me, so that might be an incentive.”

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