Do you really need to take 10,000 steps a day to be fit?

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Activity trackers like Fitbit suggest we should set a daily goal of 10,000 steps – but what’s the medical basis for that figure? There isn’t any. The figure stems from 1960s Japan, when a pedometer called manpo-kei (which literally means “10,000 step meter”) was created. It was a goal that sounded challenging yet achievable, and this became the core of its marketing strategy.

Although the 10,000 figure was arbitrary in its conception, research conducted since the 1960s shows that people who increase their walking to hit the target do experience health benefits. One study showed that it reduces blood pressure, while another found it has positive effects on blood glucose levels.

For people who lead sedentary lifestyles, aiming for 10,000 steps is a no-brainer on the path to fitness. But what if you’re no stranger to the gym? Slow and steady cardio has had a bad rap in the past few years, but walking 10,000 steps – roughly 8km – a day has health benefits for everyone.

Some might argue that you could just skip one latte a day instead – 10,000 steps burns around 400 calories – but then you’d be missing out on the numerous health benefits you get simply by moving. Apple CEO Tim Cook was exaggerating when he called sitting “the new cancer” but if there’s one thing all modern studies into longevity prove, it’s that regular movement is the key to long life.

A low-impact activity that can be done every day without straining joints or muscles, brisk walking gets your heart working at about 60% of your max rate, enough to provide health benefits without overtaxing your body. You might think running would be a better choice for losing that belly, but in fact it has the potential to induce catabolism (the breakdown of muscle for energy) and encourage cortisol production, which in turn encourages fat storage.

Low-intensity cardio can also contribute to better circulation, as it encourages your heart’s left ventricle – the artery that pushes blood out to the rest of the body – to increase in capacity. It may also improve your capacity for recovery, by increasing blood flow, it removes the by-products of high-intensity exercise, which means less pain after tough workouts. Additionally, it replenishes the chemical building blocks and enzymes needed to lift weights, so you’ll be ready for a gym session.

It’s perfectly possible to be fit without worrying about hitting a target set by a Japanese marketing team 50 years ago, but aiming to take 10,000 steps a day is an easy way to stay as healthy as possible. Get a tracker, make a game of it and reap the rewards.

Melody Coleman is a personal trainer and body transformation specialist (bodyprojectpt.com)