Why Walking 10,000 Steps a Day Is Arbitrary

Lisa Fields
by Lisa Fields
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Why Walking 10,000 Steps a Day Is Arbitrary

Whether you’re new to walking or just looking for an easy way to reach your weight-loss goals, you’ve likely heard the advice you should aim for 10,000 steps a day. For most people, this translates to roughly 5 miles (depending on things like height and walking gait). It’s a nice, round number that’s easy to remember. However, it turns out 10,000 steps isn’t necessarily the holy grail for shedding pounds.

Here’s what you need to know about how the number came to be, why it isn’t for everyone and how to take a smarter approach to activity levels:


Researchers didn’t do extensive calculations to determine 10,000 steps was optimal for fitness or weight loss. In fact, the number can actually be traced back to promotional material for a pedometer that was released in Japan in the 1960s. Since then, other companies and organizations worldwide have recommended this number. However, “it lacks evidence to support it as the ‘right’ number to support fitness or overall health,” says Lauren Shroyer, senior director of product development for the American Council on Exercise.


When you’re just starting an exercise program, you may not have the confidence or ability to get anywhere near 10,000 steps (even if you go for daily walks). This lofty goal might backfire as consistently falling short of your goals may discourage you from exercising.

If you swim or cycle, those activities don’t register as steps, so your count for the day won’t accurately reflect in your activity level. Plus, if you get 10,000 steps just from walking to and from work, you may feel best when you get 15,000 or 20,000 steps per day, instead of stopping at 10,000. Ultimately, “tracking step count is highly individual and there’s no perfect number,” underscores Shroyer.


Experts recommend tracking the total amount of time you’re physically active, rather than the number of steps you take. “A more researched and quantifiable number comes from the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week to improve overall health,” says Shroyer. “This number is based in reviews of scientific literature.”

Aiming for a set number of minutes per day or week — rather than a certain number of steps per day — allows you the flexibility to move at your own pace while getting in the recommended amount of physical activity. “This promotes adherence to healthy habits and prevents injury and frustration along the way,” notes Shroyer.


You can still track your physical activity in steps if you prefer, but don’t feel like your progress is 100% dependent on reaching 10,000 steps. Eating a well-balanced diet is also an important part of the picture when it comes to weight loss and maintenance, notes Shroyer. When you’re starting out, wear your activity tracker for a few days to see what your baseline activity level is, then increase duration gradually. If you’re incorporating other forms of exercise such as strength-trainingcycling or swimming, you may want to go by overall time.

About the Author

Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields

Lisa Fields is a full-time freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition, fitness and psychology topics. Her work has been published in Reader’s Digest, WebMD, Women’s Health, Shape, Self and many other publications. A former lifeguard, Lisa swims regularly to stay in shape.You can read more of her work at http://www.writtenbylisafields.com/.

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12 responses to “Why Walking 10,000 Steps a Day Is Arbitrary”

  1. I totally concur with this. It’s the totality of your entire program that matters. While the 10,000 steps is a nice target to shoot for, there’s obviously much more to it than that. We know a person’s metabolism plays a big part in their progress (i.e., their overall fitness level). Furthermore, if your diet is crappy, then your fitness routine may become rather moot. I love the closing advice that recommends “aiming for a set number of minutes per day or week” as opposed to focusing on a specific number of steps. That can be more productive. Focusing on 10,000 steps can seem daunting and overwhelming, even for the most ardent fitness guru. Life always seems to get in the way. But if we work toward chunks of time instead, that will be much more doable. Have a great day!

  2. Avatar Peter Olsen says:

    I agree and disagree. I personally think 10k steps(though most people never reach this number) I have my clients strive for 15,000- 20,000. When you are at 20,000 steps a day you can be more liberal in what you eat and thus the lifestyle is more sustainable and you will continue to shed. The sweet spot is between 15-20k. Also I feel steps are so much better to track because it is easier to track on your fitbit and it is exciting when you break 10k… break 15k break 20k! Heck on Sunday(bc I have more time on the weekends obviously) I went over 54,000 steps!!!! That is over a marathon! So having something exciting for people to stretch for is important and steps are the best way to do that.

    • Avatar Ams says:

      How do you even get 54,000 steps in one day? My highest number of steps I think is like 26,000 in one day and I was at Disneyland.

      • Avatar Peter Olsen says:

        lol…. I started super early in the morning…. hiked for about 5-6 hours… then took a few hour break then went to the gym, put on my headphones and walked for hours! lol

      • Avatar David Claude Warlick says:

        You get a Garmin badge if you walk 50,000 steps in a day. You can’t do that number in a day without practice. However, if you build up to it with 30,000 and 40,000 step days in the previous two weeks, then yes, as Peter says, you can hit 50,000 with a full day of walking.

  3. Avatar Tawni Gehring says:

    10,000 steps is not the “magical” number for weight loss, but it is considered a benchmark for health from the American Heart Association. Please don’t forget that just because it’s not necessarily a weight loss tool doesn’t mean that it’s not a good benchmark for other health measures. I’ve never even heard 10,000 steps for weight loss – I’ve always heard it associates with a healthy heart, with the added bonus that it promotes healthy activity and movement that could coincide with weight loss.

    • Avatar Peter Olsen says:

      10,000 steps a day will maintain your weight with maybe a slight weight loss(the avg american by the way gets 3400 steps a day to give you some perspective) but to get consistent weight loss 15,000-20,000 steps a day is key.

  4. Avatar Candce Brandt says:

    I’m sorry to hear the goal of 10,000 steps being dismissed. It may seem “piddly” to someone with a more rigorous routine, but I keep track of that goal every day. It is very true that I don’t hit it every day. I’m closer to round 5,500 to 8,500 but I want to be at the 10,000 as a benchmark for being more active with my desk job. I have never considered this the magic bullet for weight loss but I do think that it is a healthy goal for general fitness and that beats doing nothing by a long shot. So, while we should keep in mind that this is not the key to overall weight loss or real fitness, it is a start and worthy of note.

  5. Avatar Jane Douglas says:

    I manage 10,000 steps about 4 days a week and other days it’s closer to 5,000… but it’s all good. Tracking my steps is easy with phone so it works for me. It’s just one component of my healthy lifestyle that also includes a clean diet, weight resistance training and yoga. I think if you simply maintain a target whether it’s steps, distance, cardio duration macros then it doesn’t really matter as long as it challenges you and you’re consistently doing it.

  6. 10,000 steps everyday this year. 20 pounds down. It’s not “arbitrary” to me.

  7. Avatar gonesimera says:

    I try and do 15,000 steps a day along with a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, I lost over 20 kg in the last year doing this.

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