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Why 10,000 steps a day (and how far is that)?

The 10,000 daily step count is considered by many as the ‘golden’ threshold when quantifying habitual activity levels. Failing to hit this target can mean endless notifications from an unforgiving Fitbit or tracking device and anything greater is regarded as a glowing success.

The target of 10,000 steps per day can be traced to the product name of a Japanese pedometer made in the mid-1960s.

Nowadays, the reference point is based on scientific evidence, indicating that this number can help with body composition and other health-related goals. 

On average, 10,000 steps will equate to approximately 8km (5 miles) and the amount of energy expended per step is roughly proportional to a person’s body weight (cal/kg/step). Obviously, the length of each step and the energy used taking those steps vary – according to height, age, body weight, fitness level, etc.

The energy used is also dependent upon speed (running vs walking) but the difference in terms of calories burned over a fixed distance is not as much as you might think; there is minimal difference in energy expended between a brisk walk and a slow run/jog. The graph below from one study shows that, where the two curved lines meet.

It’s been shown that a greater number of daily steps was significantly associated with lower all-cause mortality. Eight-thousand steps per day was associated with a 51% lower risk of all-cause mortality, compared to taking 4,000 steps, while 12,000 steps per day was associated with a 65% lower risk.

At the simplest and perhaps most important level, fitness trackers can be a fantastic awareness tool to increase your activity levels via daily steps and encourage you to be more active. Walking has well-established benefits for mental health, mood, cognition and well-being.

Beyond that, the accuracy of tracking devices can be questionable, particularly when assessing energy expenditure. A study published in 2016, found that tracking devices overestimated energy expenditure by between 16% and 40%!

It’s doubly important, therefore, that you don’t ‘eat back’ the calories your tracker has said you’ve burned! Device or no device, it is poor practice to try and offset or mitigate exercise with extra calories. Losing body fat is about being in a deficit, so ‘bank’ the activity and don’t risk reducing it or wiping it out completely! (At Bodyscan, we call the practice of not ‘banking’ the advantage (eating more after exercise) the ‘mitigation mindset’.)

Even without a device that we put our (misguided but well-meaning) trust in, it is common nature for most of us to regard ourselves as more active than we actually are (and to eat less than we really do). When you have a Bodyscan Baseline DEXA scan, the end of consultation will aim to establish your maintenance calories (to maintain weight) and therefore the total energy (calorie) requirement to lose fat, gain muscle or both. The second section of the calorie calculator requires an honest assessment of your activity level. Unfailingly, most clients describe themselves as at least one level above reality. Walking the dog does not make you ‘moderately active’!

Further, if fat loss is your goal, it is always safer to set the activity bar low to ensure you’re in a deficit, even if you overeat and under-exercise.

Writing this during the coronavirus, now more than ever is an important time to be mindful of your activity levels – if highlighting your step count with a phone app or tracking device helps you move more, then do it!

Kevin Garde
Nutritionist and Bodyscan Consultant