Analysis: there has been a lot of research done around daily step counts and smart ways to achieve health and fitness goals

Everyone knows someone who is obsessed with the target of achieving 10,000 steps in any one day. They may be competing against friends or family or even an online community. But why is this the magic number and are there smarter ways to achieve your health and fitness goals?

The origin of this daily step misconception originated from a marketing strategy by Dr Yoshiro Hatano in 1964, in an attempt to change Japan's increasingly sedentary lifestyle due to a rise in unhealthy habits adopted from the United States. He developed an early form of pedometer called the Manpo-Kei, which translates literally as a 10,000 steps meter from man. Hatano's rationale to increase the Japanese average activity of 4,000 steps to 10,000 steps was an attempt to facilitate the burn off of an additional 500 calories to combat the western influences and promote the maintenance of their traditionally slim figures.

But what does the science say? Much research has been done in this area to reduce the impact of unsubstantiated facts in our modern day fitness regime. An experiment conducted by Dr Michael Mosley on BBC's The Truth About Getting Fit in 2018, showed that individuals who did three brisk walks of 10 minutes each (approximately 1,000 steps each), actually did 30% more moderate exercise per week than those who did 10,000 steps per day, the latter target was also found to be far more challenging to achieve.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, Ella McSweeney takes a walk in the woods with author Richard Nairn, who has just published his new book Wild Woods The Magic of Irelands Native Woodlands.

Why is this the case? When walking for short periods of time, we strive to increase our intensity level, thereby raising our heart levels to the recommended moderate level designated in the World Health Organization and Irish National Physical Activity guidelines. Target heart rate during moderate intensity activities is about 50-70% of maximum heart rate and can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220 (220 – minus age = maximum heart rate). For those who like numbers, a smart watch will give you this information at the press of a button. But for those who just want to escape for a while and enjoy the fresh air, being short of breath yet able to hold a conversation and sweating slightly will mean you are exercising at the right intensity. 

When looking at walkers trying to attain the holy grail of 10,000 steps (equivalent to approximately 5 miles or 8km), it was seen that individuals walked at a lower intensity or slower pace because of the increased distance they needed to cover. Although they were certainly benefitting from the exercise, it did not have as a desirable physiological impact as the 'brisk walkers.' As Mosley noted, "three short brisk walks were easier to fit into the day and better for health".

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1, Cillian Sherlock speaks to lockdown walkers on Sandymount Strand in Dublin

While our day to day routines and activities account for a certain number of steps anyway, a 10km daily target is hard to achieve even taking this into consideration. In 2017, the average Irish person took approximately 5,444 steps per day, showing a 4.5km (or 45 minutes) of moderate walking deficit. Very few people have the time to achieve this so the steps are accrued with meaningless activities like pacing while on the phone, which has no health advantage whatsoever as your heart rate will not rise sufficiently to cause any benefit. 

So what is the optimum number of steps? A study published in 2019 looking at mortality rates among older women in the United States over a 4 year period, showed that mortality rates were lower in women who averaged 4,400 steps daily compared to their more sedentary counterparts who averaged 2,700 steps. This trend continued, with mortality rates progressively decreasing with the accruement of more daily steps, until levelling at approximately 7,500 steps which seems to be the magic number.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, author Daniel Lieberman on his new book Exercised - The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health

We all want to do something to improve our health, but hectic lifestyles and limited time mean we need to ensure that we are being as productive as possible with our chosen exercise. So what should we be doing to delay the onset of or reduce the risk of certain illnesses and chronic diseases? The answer is simple: we should engage in short bouts of aerobic exercise fpr at least 10 minutes duration three times a day for a minimum of five times per week. The exercise needs to be in addition to our normal day to day activity and needs to be at a moderate level and we should be aiming for at least 100 steps per minute.

This form of aerobic ("with oxygen") exercise, performed for a sustained period of time, improves circulation which lowers blood pressure and heart rate. By exercising regularly, we improve our capacity for physical effort and reduce the risk of illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and depression.

READ: 10 reasons why more women should lift weights

10,000 steps a day is difficult to achieve, which may mean a tendency to either get obsessive about exercise, or give up altogether, neither of which is a desirable outcome. Give yourself a break, abandon your smart activity tracker and enjoy regular, short bouts of exercise to boost your activity levels and achieve the National Guideline Target for adults of 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five times a week.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ