It is no secret that being active is one of the best ways for us to keep healthy. As one of the key pillars of good Whole Person Health, we have dedicated many an article to talking about the benefits of exercise, with the most recent being the importance of knowing our aerobic fitness. Beyond that, maintaining an active lifestyle comes with a host of benefits, including a lower risk of premature death, coronary heart diseases, type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, depression, and much more. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that fitness trends like the 10,000 steps challenge have taken the world by storm, and many of us continue to strive for this fabled target in our day-to-day lives. But is this goal really as important as it seems? What exactly are the benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day, and is it sufficient to keep us healthy? Let’s find out.
The downsides of having too many steps or too much exercise
In recent years, health technology has become more prevalent in our lives, with our phones, smartwatches, and wearable devices offering different ways for us to monitor our health and be more active - including prompting us to take around 10,000 steps every day. As it turns out, there is no real scientific basis for this number. The activity goal started out as a marketing tool for a Japanese pedometer in the 1960s and has simply continued to proliferate in modern technology1. Today, the multitude of research on this popular topic seems to have arrived at a single conclusion: walking 10,000 steps is not actually optimal for our health.
The general consensus is that while the number of 10,000 steps is a convenient one for us to strive for, it may be too much. A recent study found that walking 4,400 steps a day was already sufficient to reduce the likelihood of premature death by around 40%2. The benefits continued to scale for participants who walked up to 7,500 steps daily, but from there on, the benefits tapered off.
This same trend can also be observed when it comes to other forms of exercise. For instance, it was found that 2.6 hours of weekly exercise provided similar health benefits to those who walk 7,000 to 8,000 steps a day. However, exercising 4.5 hrs each week - which is similar to walking 10,000 steps daily - did not come with any additional advantages3.
On the contrary, research has actually found that people who exercised excessively for over 10 hours per week stood to lose about a third of the health benefits mentioned earlier. Overexerting ourselves and ignoring much-needed recovery periods do not only defeat the point of exercising, but they may also lead to severe injuries and cardiovascular concerns. In more extreme cases, over-exercising can also go on to suppress our immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to infections for up to 72 hours4.
The optimal amount of exercise for the best health outcomes
When it comes down to it, it is important to not just listen to our bodies so that we can give it the care and rest that it needs, but to also factor in the activities that will motivate us to stay active. Although staying active already translates to half the battle won, having both the right types and the right amounts of physical activity can help optimise our lifestyles for even better health outcomes.
The general consensus across various studies state that the optimal number of steps is around 7,000 to 8,000 steps daily, though it should be noted that the focus should not lie with the number of steps as much as it should on the purpose of staying active throughout the day. In other words, solely focusing on the steps that we can take each day can become a pitfall if we become overly reliant on one type of exercise. Most health authorities, including Singapore’s Health Promotion Board5, recommend 150 mins of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise every week, as casual walking may not be as beneficial as the former. However, if it is not as easy for you to fit in such longer bouts of exercise, step counting can still serve as a good reminder to stay active. The main takeaway here is simply to find ways to exercise that best suit our lifestyle and preferences, so that we can build sustainable habits to drive a more active lifestyle.
Over to you
Our health journeys are deeply personal; there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will work for everyone. The same goes for our exercise routines. What is important is that we should find a routine that best suits our individual preferences and circumstances while also striking a balance between exertion and recovery. As long as you are doing your best to move more, be it walking or other forms of exercise, you are already well on your way to achieving a healthier and more enriching lifestyle.
1. Tudor-Locke, C. (2003). Manpo-Kei: The Art and Science of Step Counting.
2. Lee, I., Shiroma, E., Kamada, M., Bassett, D., Matthews, C., & Buring, J. (2019). Association of Step Volume and Intensity With All-Cause Mortality in Older Women.
3. Schnohr, P., O’Keefe, J., Lavie, C., Holtermann, A., Lange, P., Jensen, G., & Marott, J. (2021). U-Shaped Association Between Duration of Sports Activities and Mortality: Copenhagen City Heart Study.
4. Romero, M., & Polan, S. (2021). What overexercising does to your body and brain.
5. Health Promotion Board. (2021). Get Active, Aim for 150 Minutes a Week, Anytime, Anywhere, to be Healthy.