5 mins read

Did you get your 10,000 steps in today?

Is there a magic number of daily steps? Maybe, but it might not be for the benefits you think about.

Follow Basis
In this article:
  • Walking and human health
  • A history of 10,000 steps per day
  • A more nuanced look at daily steps
  • Key takeaways to optimize your walking routine

“How many steps did you get today?”

This has become a common question in a world where almost everyone has a smart watch, fitness tracker, or other wearable device that’s capable of measuring daily activity levels. We’ve all become well aware of our daily step counts in addition to all of the other cool health metrics that we can assess on a day-to-day basis.

All of this data may be a net benefit — access to information allows us to engage in more activity as a result of the “gamification” of fitness. Others will argue that a single-minded obsession about a precise daily step count is useless, annoying, or even harmful.

If you ask anyone how many steps one should get in a day, 10,000 is likely the number you’ll hear in response. It has almost become a fitness rule that 10,000 steps per day is what everyone should aim for, no matter the circumstance.

How and why has this seemingly arbitrary number become so embedded in our culture? Is there a scientific reason that this recommendation came to be? Is there any evidence to support the health benefits of 10,000 steps per day?

Let’s take a “walk” into the history and science of 10,000 steps.

Walking and human health

Humans were “made” for walking and running, so it’s no surprise that both of these behaviors are associated with incredible health benefits. Low-intensity exercise like walking can increase your metabolic rate 3-4x above your resting levels and during a walk, you’ll use your body’s own fat stores as a fuel. Walking is a “fat-burning” exercise that’s accessible to almost anyone, anywhere. It’s an incredible tool with potent metabolic benefits.

Walking also substantially reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease — no matter how much you do — and decreases levels of cardiometabolic risk factors including blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose. All of these clinical benefits are in addition to the increase in daily energy levels, motivation, and mental clarity that many people report from increasing their daily step count through walking.

A history of 10,000 steps per day

We’ve established that walking is healthy, but how much is enough? While there are guidelines for how much aerobic and resistance exercise you should achieve in a given week, there aren’t well-established recommendations for steps, even though many people will often refer to the idea that we should all get around 10,000 steps per day.

Where did this notion of 10,000 being the “optimal” amount of steps come from? The history goes back to the 1960s when Japanese walking clubs began to embrace the idea of tracking daily steps. The Japanese pedometer manufacturer at the time had a nickname for their product — “manpo kei” — which literally translates to “ten-thousand steps meter.” As such, 10,000 steps became a daily target for walkers everywhere, and eventually started to spread around the world.

All of this is to say that the 10,000 steps per day recommendation is, for the most part, an arbitrary goal that isn’t founded in much research or science. However, because 10,000 steps has been promoted as a worthwhile health goal for so long, research studies have been conducted to verify or dispute the association of 10,000 steps per day with improved health.

A more nuanced look at daily steps

Walk more to reduce your risk of death

Most of us are concerned with living better — improving our healthspan — and perhaps with living longer — increasing our lifespan. Daily walking has been associated with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality (death from any cause), suggesting that this habit may have benefits for your quality and quantity of life. But are the best results achieved with precisely 10,000 steps?

One study found that taking more than 7,000 steps per day significantly reduced the risk of death, but interestingly, taking more than 10,000 steps per day didn’t further decrease this risk. In this instance, 7,000-10,000 seemed to be the sweet spot, with a minimum effective dose of 7,000 steps per day.

One meta-analysis also seemed to provide support for the 10,000 steps per day recommendation. For individuals older than 60, a maximum risk reduction for all-cause mortality was observed between 6,000 and 8,000 steps per day. For younger individuals, 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day was associated with the lowest risk of death.

However, reductions in all-cause mortality above the 10,000 steps per day threshold have also been observed. A 2021 study found that the risk of death decreased in a dose-dependent manner all the way up to 16,000 steps per day! Compared to the lowest step count (2,700 steps per day), 10,000 steps per day was associated with a 56% reduced risk of death, but 16,000 steps per day was associated with a 66% risk reduction. For every 1,000 extra steps per day agove 3,500, the risk of death was reduce by approximately 12%.

So yes, 10,000 steps per day is much better than lower step counts when it comes to improving health. But the data don’t suggest that you should stop there. Getting more than 10,000 steps — perhaps up to twice as many — may provide additional benefits. One of the problems with observational studies is that it’s difficult to find people who are getting 15,000 or more steps per day, so we’ve got little data on health outcomes for those who are logging lots of miles on their feet. 

The evidence would also suggest that even if you fall a few thousand steps short of 10,000, it’s nothing to stress about. Benefits of 7,000 and 8,000 steps per day are still apparent.

To find out if more steps lead to better health and more energy, you might have to do some self-experimenting!

Is “how hard” more important than “how many”?

When it comes to exercise, we should not only think about the volume of our exercise (how many steps we are getting), but also the intensity (how hard is the exercise). Total daily step count is only one part of the equation when thinking about how walking can benefit your health. Is faster walking better?

As it turns out, intensity may be more important than duration. Some observational studies show that faster walking speeds are associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, even when no associations are found for walking duration. A fast and brisk walking speed is also associated with reduced all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality, even among individuals who don’t meet the minimum physical activity guildelines for exercise duration — suggesting intensity is perhaps more important than total volume. Falling short on your daily steps? Make up for it by walking faster.

In short, you don’t need to meet the goal of 10,000 steps per day, as long as the steps you are getting are performed at a faster pace and higher intensity. Aiming to get your heart rate to around 50-70% of je your maximum heart rate — which could be difficult for some while walking — is a solid recommendation.

Do I need to get all of my steps in at once?

A question that many people ask about daily step counts is whether they have to accumulate all of their daily steps at once. Should you log a 10,000 step walk in the morning, or can you gradually build to this number through a few daily walks of a couple thousand steps each?

It may not matter, but recent research has highlighted the benefits of breaking up sedentary time during the day with short bouts of exercise — so called “exercise snacks.” Getting up every few hours to take a 15- to 30-minute walk is not only a way to please your pedometer, but it’s an energy and productivity hack that many people — including myself — swear by. There’s also research-backed evidence that these “exercise snacks” can benefit metabolic health by improving blood glucose control and increasing blood flow to your body and brain. 

Take a break from the screen, lace up your shoes, and take a mid-day walk. Yeah, it’ll help fulfill your daily step goal, but the benfits go far beyond the “bragging rights.”

Can too few steps interfere with exercise training adaptations?

Getting your daily steps in, whatever the number, may actually be essential if you’re trying to see progress in the gym. Recently published research found that reducing daily step counts to less than 5,000 per day can interfere with the adaptations to exercise training — a concept called “exercise resistance.” Simply put, regular exercise might not be enough to progress or maintain training gains if the rest of your day involves being completely sedentary. 

How many steps are needed to prevent “exercise resistance?”

The magic number seems to be 8,500.

These are some important findings to consider — your daily step count goal should be in addition to the other exercise that you’re engaging in if you want to avoid sacrificing valuable training gains. Working hard in the gym is no excuse to lie around on the couch for the rest of the day. Get your steps in too.

Unsettled science on steps

Unfortunately, it’s hard to give a definitive answer to whether or not you should target 10,000 steps per day. The short answer is yes — because many health benefits are associated with this daily step count. However, as we’ve seen, health can be improved with step counts well above 10,000 per day —and well below this number —  which suggests that you shouldn’t put a ceiling on how much walking you do. Though there may be a floor.

Should you walk as much as possible? Probably, but not at the expense of other life obligations or fulfilling hobbies. It’s fun to live in an age of the “quantified self,” but let’s remember that sometimes, benchmarks such as the 10,000 steps per day goal exist for no apparent reason. While these goals can serve as good launching points, health optimization ultimately requires fine-tuning a daily routine that works for you, and it’s an ongoing process. 

Key takeaways to optimize your walking routine

  • While walking, metabolic rate is increased 3-4 times above resting levels, and the body “burns fat” for energy
  • Walking is associated with a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and decreases the levels of several cardiometabolic risk factors
  • The 10,000 steps per day recommendation originated in Japan in the 1960s after a promotional campaign from a pedometer manufacturer
  • Achieving 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of death in several large observational studies
  • A reduced risk of death has been observed with step counts up to 17,000 per day
  • Walking speed or intensity is also associated with a reduced risk of all-cause mortality, independent of total overall exercise volume
  • Accumulating your daily steps in shorter bouts may be more beneficial than getting them all at once, especially for metabolic and cardiovascular health
  • Getting less than 5,000 steps per day may interfere with exercise training adaptations, while getting 8,500 steps per day can prevent “exercise resistance”


5 mins read
Did you get your 10,000 steps in today?

Is there a magic number of daily steps? Maybe, but it might not be for the benefits you think about.

In this article:
  • Walking and human health
  • A history of 10,000 steps per day
  • A more nuanced look at daily steps
  • Key takeaways to optimize your walking routine