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Who decided we should all take 10,000 steps a day, anyway?

(Washington Post illustration)

My phone is on me at all times to make sure I don’t miss a step (my goal is 11,000). And I’m not alone in my pursuit of a daily step goal. Step counters are built into all iPhones (check out the “Health” app), #10000steps is a popular Instagram hashtag, and watches with pedometers and heart monitors adorn many wrists. Celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak recommends step counting for his A-list clients. He tells them there are 168 hours in the week, and if they are only in a gym for three hours a week, that leaves 165 sedentary hours. That’s when steps should be taken.

People who faithfully adhere to 10,000 daily steps or who scold themselves for not reaching that goal may be surprised to learn that this widely accepted target did not originate as the result of years of scientific research. Instead, it grew out of the marketing campaign for a pedometer invented in 1965 by a Japanese professor of health science who believed walking 10,000 steps daily would help the Japanese people avoid obesity. The name of the pedometer was Manpo-kei (10,000-step meter), and the ads for the device said, “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day!” More than 50 years later, the idea that adults need to walk 10,000 steps a day retains its power.

Over the years, many researchers have studied the 10,000-step number to see whether it holds weight. The answer is yes and no. Although the 10,000 step daily goal is not universally appropriate for all ages and levels of physical function, it is considered “a reasonable target for healthy adults,” according to a 2011 research review published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

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Here’s why: Most Americans take 4,000 to 6,000 steps through general daily action — working, shopping, walking through parking lots, etc. If you add the 30 minutes of recommended exercise, that’s another 3,000 to 4,000 steps, and gets you close to the 10,000-step goal. It’s basic math. Tracking steps and having manageable goals can prompt people to do more physical activity.

Of course, someone who is less active may set a lower step goal. An increase to 8,000 steps will help an adult who was previously taking only 6,000 (fewer than 5,000 steps a day is considered sedentary). On the other hand, someone who already walks 10,000 steps may aim for 15,000. The idea is to be more aware of your activity level and increase it as needed.

But does that mean using a step counter improves your health? Research shows mixed results. Benefits could include increased physical activity and motivation to exercise; reduced anxiety and better mood; and improved glucose tolerance and blood sugar levels. Although some studies show step counting can help control blood pressure levels and reduce body weight, at least in the short term, other have found this is not the case.

Physicians have also noted that while having patients count steps can motivate them to be more active, it can also deflate patients by underlining their inability to meet a daily goal, and wind up discouraging them from exercising at all.

And some researchers are wondering whether they are asking the wrong question. Maybe they should ask, “How many steps are too few?” Recent studies are looking at the risks that come from too much sedentary behavior, especially on cardiovascular disease risk.

The bottom line is that although 10,000 steps is not a magic number, and using a step counter doesn’t guarantee you’ll lose weight or become healthier, using a pedometer can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Here’s how to do it. (This information is intended for generally healthy adults.)See these alternative step goals for

First, spend a few weeks tracking your average daily steps. Then, gradually increase your activity week by week. You can boost your chances of successfully increasing your activity level by linking your steps to additional support systems, such as a partner or a motivational app. The way I reach my goal is by taking a daily 30-minute walk (indoors at a mall or on a treadmill when it’s too cold outside), and competing with my husband on a shared app. I get in extra steps when I take the stairs instead of the elevator, choose parking spots far from the entrance and walk my kids to school.

As you work toward meeting your own target, keep these three truths in mind.

One, the quality of the physical activity matters more than the actual number of steps that appears on your pedometer. Taking 10,000 steps while window shopping isn’t as beneficial as a brisk walk. Your pedometer counts them equally, but your body doesn’t. To be truly active, aim for at least 100 steps per minute. Not sure how fast you walk? Use the timer on your phone to help you set a healthy pace.

Two, there will be days when you fall short of your step goal, and days when you surpass it. Make sure that you will be mentally prepared for either outcome before you start tracking. If step counts become too difficult to meet and make you feel bad about yourself, it’s not the right plan. Physical activity should be enjoyable and motivating, not stressful and harmful.

Finally, remember that step counting isn’t a complete picture of how active you are. Pedometers don’t measure physical activities such as biking, yoga or swimming, and can give an inaccurate count unless you have them with you at all times.

It is important that you consider 10,000 steps as a guiding value, not a prescriptive one. It compares well to estimating daily calorie needs — there’s no commonly shared number for everyone. And, as with calories, it’s best not to obsess over figures when tracking steps. It’s the big picture — being more active — that matters more than any one number.

Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”

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