I used to live in New York City, where most people walk everywhere. Or at least do more walking than people who live in what I call Car Country. In New York, I had to climb five sets of stairs just to reach my fifth-floor walkup apartment.

Then I moved to Car Country. Louisville, to be exact. All those steps I took for granted vanished.

Until my best friend gave me a FitBit.  And a monster was born.

FitBit suggested a daily goal of 10,000 steps, or some five miles. But for me, for 365 consecutive days, it wasn’t enough to average 10,000 steps. No, I had to crush them. Every. Single. Day. 

Or so I thought. It was fun for a while with the celebration exploding on my watch at the finish line and all that green on my app for steps, stairs, consecutive hours, and 30+ minutes of exercise. But one day—it was late— I dropkicked my FitBit down the hall in frustration over missing my target.

Enough, I said. The next day I didn’t wear it to work and I felt out of sorts. I was walking, sure, but I wasn’t getting any credit. 

How did I – we – get to the Tyranny of 10,000 steps?

The story behind 10,000

I know, I know, walking is good for you; sitting is the new smoking (or not). I get it. I do. But hold on a second. Have we all been tricked, not by science but by clever marketing?

Have we all been tricked, not by science but by clever marketing?

Maybe. A half-century ago, a Japanese professor of health science developed and sold an aptly name pedometer, Manpo-kei, which translates into 10,000 steps meter. Ad copy in 1965 was cheery, “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day!”

Sure, let’s. And we did.

Many studies since then, including one about the Amish, who bless their hearts must wonder what all the fuss is about as they walk from dawn to dark, have fed into the magical power of 10,000 steps, leading to the rise of FitBit and other health trackers and apps.

James Borchers, a sports medicine physician at Ohio State University, says: “10,000 steps is a great starting point, but it’s a little aggressive for some people. The key is to gradually build into it.”

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The threshold may be burnt into our psyches, he adds, but it’s not all you need to do.

It’s not just steps, people

Patients will come in saying, “Doctor, I’m getting my 10,000 steps, thinking they are healthy,” Borchers says, but they have no strength training, they haven’t considered their diet. “There’s a sense that 10,000 steps is the Holy Grail, but there’s more to it.”

“Theres a sense that 10,000 steps is the Holy Grail but there’s more to it than that.”
James Borcher, sports medicine physician
Ohio State University

Health insurers have joined the gambit and if you hand over your fitness information (without thinking too much about long-term privacy implications), they’ll reward you with gift cards. Who knows, maybe I’ll complete enough steps to buy shoe inserts because with all this pavement pounding plantar fasciitis has flared in both of my heels.

To prevent injury and to avoid burnout, Dr. Borchers says, you must first understand where you’re starting from and build to the goal. “You jump in saying: ‘I’m going to hit 10,000 steps.’ That’s where you fail and risk getting injured and can’t complete it. Build to that goal and understand how you are going to get there.”

Visit your doctor to get an overall picture of your health first, Dr. Borchers recommends, and find an exercise specialist to find a workable overall exercise plan. Once you do that …

Keep on walking

OK, here’s where the shoe rubber meets the road. Here are three easy tips for walkers:

  • Federal guidelines call for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, that’s two and a half hours. A recent study suggests walkers don’t need a fancy watch to keep track of their steps and pace, they just need to maintain a moderate intensity, so pick it up. Quick tip: count steps for 15 seconds and multiply by four. The goal is about 100 steps a minute.
  • Find the joy in walking, says the American Heart Association. Grab a leash and walk with your dog, listen to music, invite a friend to quicken the pace. Time goes by much faster.
  • Household chores and yard work yield a surprising number of steps, so if you start at 8 a.m. say, you could be done by noon.

And if you go trackerless and need affirmation, post your daily ritual on Instagram with a #10000steps hashtag or share a group text with your walking buddies.

For everyone else, including me—I bought a new FitBit!—get walking.

Mine just buzzed. “You’ve almost reached your goal,” it tells me. I’m at 9,626 steps, time to go.

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