How Many Steps Should You Take in a Day | Chris Kresser

How Many Steps Should You Get in a Day?

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We’ve all heard that walking 10,000 steps per day is good for us (and it’s in line with the principles of ancestral health). But is that number appropriate for everyone? In this article we will look at some of the health outcomes associated with achieving 10,000 steps, if fitness trackers and pedometers are worth it, and how to get in more steps per day.

How many steps should you get in a day?
Getting in 10,000 steps a day is ideal in order to receive a whole host of health benefits. iStock.com/kieferpix

The 10,000-Step Mantra

Get your 10,000 steps in! Practically everyone is familiar with this mantra, and it is traceable as far back as the 1960s in Japan. (1) Depending on a person’s stride length, 10,000 steps correlates to approximately five miles. However, modern-day desk jobs and excessive electronic usage set the stage for a sedentary lifestyle. Some reports estimate that the average U.S. adult only achieves 5,117 steps per day, far below what’s recommended. (2)

Chronic disease and obesity plague the Western world. While only one piece of the puzzle, not enough physical activity is part of the problem. We know being sedentary is detrimental to health. Low physical activity is correlated with cardiovascular disease, obesity, insulin resistance, and all-cause mortality. (3, 4)

Just one additional hour in a sedentary posture per day is associated with a 22 percent greater risk of type 2 diabetes and a 39 percent greater risk for metabolic syndrome. (5)

As a way of measuring physical activity, fitness trackers, including the Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Jawbone Up, have become popular over the last five years. In 2015, consumers bought 50 million wearable devices in a market exceeding $2 billion. And the market is expected to rise.

You’ve probably heard the 10,000-step mantra, but did you know that you can get greater health benefits even past 10,000? Find out how many steps you should get each day. #healthylifestyle #wellness #chriskresser

Do Fitness Trackers Increase Physical Activity of the Wearer?

In intervention studies, fitness trackers do show a moderate effect on increasing step count and/or physical activity. Older patients instructed to aim for 10,000 steps per day lost weight and had decreased LDL levels after 12 to 14 weeks of use. (6) Other studies have confirmed weight loss success from promoting 10,000 daily steps through fitness trackers. (7, 8) In the workplace, fitness challenges often including daily step counts can motivate employees to increase their physical activity. (9, 10) It seems that for some, having a visual, tangible record of their daily activities is what makes a difference. For others, the competition, such as in a workplace challenge, is key.

Although short-term intervention studies using fitness trackers can get some people to be more active, the results are often short-lived. Even though fitness tracker sales have skyrocketed, it’s estimated that one-third of people abandon them after six months.

Higher Step Counts Associated with Better Health Outcomes

Designing a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial to determine the health effects of 10,000 steps per day versus 5,000 steps per day over five, 10, or 20 years would be impossible, for a long list of reasons. Such a study could never be blinded, a valid placebo for “steps” doesn’t exist, and it probably wouldn’t be ethical.

In determining how many steps a day are optimal for health, the best we can do is look at the associations between daily step count in different populations and health outcomes, trying to adjust for confounding factors. Several studies indicate that people who increase their daily step counts over time decrease their chances of dying, lower their BMIs, decrease their waist-to-hip ratios, and improve their insulin sensitivities. (11, 12)

But how many steps are enough? Under 5,000 steps per day might be detrimental to bone mass. (13) Achieving at least 7,500 steps could help with weight loss and improve sleep. (14) And the 10,000-step cutoff might be appropriate for decreasing cardiovascular disease risk, at least in men. (15)

But do we see benefits above 10,000 steps? One study continued to show heart benefits at daily steps up to and beyond 12,500 in men, while the relationship between step count and cardiovascular disease risk in women wasn’t as linear. (16) For postmenopausal women to achieve healthy weight, 12,500 steps might be required. (17) And, a recent study looking at postal workers showed that only those who walked over 15,000 steps per day or spent seven hours per day upright had zero features of metabolic syndrome. (18)

How to Get More Steps

A daily goal of 10,000 steps is reasonable for most adults, barring any serious medical issues. Start by adding an extra 500 per day each week until you reach your goal. However, because the health benefits appear to continue beyond 10,000 steps, if you are already achieving that, aim for more! For children and adolescents, especially, 10,000 steps might not be enough. Here are some tips for increasing step count, especially relevant for those who have “desk jobs”:

  • Use the stairs at work instead of the elevator
  • Walk to ask a co-worker a quick question instead of sending an e-mail
  • See if your company would accommodate standing desks as part of a health-promoting program
  • If standing desks are out of the question, use a yoga ball instead of a chair to engage more trunk muscles
  • Walk to a different floor than yours to use the bathroom
  • Start a walking group for before or after lunch instead of spending more time sitting around
  • Set up computer prompts or alarms to remind you to get up and move around every hour
  • Initiate a fitness challenge at the workplace
  • Walk after dinner instead of plopping on the couch for another hour of TV
  • Go on a family hike or walk instead of watching a family movie

The Bottom Lines

Here’s the takeaway: physical activity throughout the day is good for our health, but sitting or lounging for long periods in a row is NOT. You don’t need to get a pedometer and exactly 10,000 steps per day, especially if you are engaging in activities that pedometers won’t necessarily count, such as swimming, yoga, and heavy weight lifting. Thirty minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is usually considered equivalent to around 3,000 steps.

Even with intervention studies where participants are given a pedometer and instructed to aim for 10,000 steps per day, the health differences in those with higher step counts is usually accounted for by waist circumference differences alone (but not always). The key, therefore, is maintaining a healthy weight through staying active. While pedometers work well for many, what is best is to incorporate daily exercise that YOU enjoy and won’t abandon in a few months time, along with changing some sedentary habits.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you use a fitness tracker? What motivates you to keep exercising after the initial novelty of the device wears off? Let us know in the comments!

  1. Love my Apple Watch for several reasons but the fitness tracker doesn’t work the way I would like it to. It only has a calorie goal not a steps goal, although it does show how many steps were taken. The other problem I’ve found with it and other trackers ( I had a Fitbit previously) is house and yard work isn’t an option for tracking unless you make it “other”. I do a LOT of work around my house, including mowing the grass, pruning, weeding, cleaning floors, etc. that require at least as much physical output as running, swimming, rowing, etc.

  2. I use Fitbit too. And I always try to be active and for me exercising is absolutely normal. I go to the gym on a regular basis. But when I’m too busy I love other activity (running).

    Thank you for the article. Found some really helpful tips. It’s the first time I’ve visited your blog but I will subscribe for sure 🙂

    Trey

  3. Regarding physical trackers…actually, they can help you get more steps! I remember back in December 2015, when I got my first one, a cheap model from Xiaomi. I set a daily goal of just 6000 and in less than a year, I doublet that amount, reaching 12-13,000 with ease. I guess that the fact that I was constantly checking it, to see how many steps I made helped me achieve this! 🙂

  4. Yes, I am currently wearing a fitbit–but my opinion on it is mixed. According to the fitbit, I am less active than I believed I was, but am I really? The problem with the fitbit is that it cannot track a lot of the activities that paleo- and keto- advocates prefer; it does not recognize when I swing kettlebells, it does not recognize when I paddle a kayak for hours on end, and it mis-interprets rollerblading as biking (and I have to take it off when I play trampoline volleyball and beach volleyball for fear of breaking it). It is frequently inaccurate (a 17-km length on my backpacking trip only gained 27000 steps and 80 flights, which sounds like a lot, but the following day was shorter and gained more steps–maybe I had my hands on the backpack straps instead of swinging my arms?) Because all the fitbit cares about is cardio–specifically steps–which is not a truthful measure of fitness and activity. It has no measure for muscle building. It cannot measure or give you credit for simply living an active lifestyle. But it sure is entertaining, and anything that encourages you to do more activity, even if as a short-lived novelty, is a good thing in my opinion. The ability to track sleep patterns is a definite bonus.

  5. I used a FitBit for a while, just to get a sense of what it takes to get in at least 10,000 steps. Once I knew, I didn’t think I needed to track it obsessively. (But I do have a Health app on my iphone that will do the same thing if I keep it in my pocket.)

    Add a bullet point: Get a dog! 🙂

  6. Hello Chris,
    Thanks for the article! In this new digital world, we find ourselves walking less and less every single day. I personally have a desk job and find myself either sitting at work and even sitting at home after work. I usually do about 4,000 steps. This is way under the limit. Thanks for the advice on how to get more activity. I also think that trackers do help monitor step counts and even have step count competitions with others.
    Thanks,
    Gaddiel

  7. Great blog post, Chris. I’ve been meaning to write one on the exact same topic, but you know…summer and all, lol.

    I started walking in earnest in March this year. Prior, I was aiming to get “10,000 steps” but usually fell well short. I bought a cheapo pedometer and learned that if I walk for 1 hour, it takes about 6500 steps. My goal since March has been to perform 2-3 targeted, non-stop walking periods of 1 hour each, so 2-3 hours per day on top of what I walk for my daily life and job. I have been logging about 15,000 steps per day, and the results have been phenomenal. My normally high-ish blood pressure of 130’s/80’s has dropped to 110’s/60’s and I’ve dropped some weight, but best of all it makes me feel really, really great. My clothes are loose and I do not feel bad eating watermelon and sweet corn, ha!

    A study from Scotland suggests that 15,000 steps might even be better: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/well/move/should-15000-steps-a-day-be-our-new-exercise-target.html

    I’m leery of FitBits and other step trackers, I don’t think we should count the steps it takes to go get a coffee or take a bathroom break. I think we need to get our 10-15,000 steps in big blocks of at least 30 minutes or more. Outside if possible.

    Hope you all are having a great summer!
    Tim

  8. I’ve always shunned fitness trackers because of the constant electromagnetic frequency exposures.

    Signals emitted by wireless trackers are similar to those of cell phones, which have been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The National Cancer Institute recommends limiting cell-phone calls that involve phone-to-head contact. Where do you wear your fitness tracker? Is it at least 2mm away from your body?

    I get it… these trackers motivate movement which is a good thing!! Why not just use them when you need them… if you must wear them, use them responsibly… and please don’t let your developing children wear these devices 24 / 7.

  9. I have been wearing a fitbit for a couple of years, and aim for 10,000 steps a day, particularly since I spend long days at the computer for work. It hasn’t translated into weight loss, but I sleep better, have more endurance for cycling and swimming, and just feel better all around.

    Chris, just one comment on the statement above that “people who increase their daily step counts over time decrease their chances of dying” – perhaps they decrease their chances of dying prematurely, but the chances of dying is 100% for all of us 😉

  10. Wrote before and I got zero response, however I am still here and I will put in a prayer that you might respond someday Chris. My phone is 3605896289. We should talk. I do 20,000 steps 6 days a week. I am 68. I had severe diabetes 2. 3 years ago I started 20,000 steps–was 240 lbs-then in Jan. 16- 198lbs. Now 160–going to 135 for sure!! How–Changed diet too strictly veg. + NO dairy ever again. Raw dairy would be wonderful, but I don’t have a farm. Anyone interested???