10K Steps a Day: Fact or Fiction?

10K Steps a Day: Fact or Fiction?

Do I need to do 10,000 steps every day?

10K Steps a Day: Fact or Fiction?

Dr Sean Wheatley, MSc, PhD. Science and Research Lead.


It is undeniable that being physically active has a range of health benefits, with huge amounts of evidence supporting this. Perhaps the most widely known guidance on how active we should be is to aim for 10,000 steps per day. But is this a reasonable target?

Where did this target come from?

As you may know, this target actually came from a marketing campaign in the run up to the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. What you might not know is that this particular number was chosen because the Japanese character for 10,000 looks like a person walking! I am assuming some consideration went into whether this number of steps was a reasonable goal – or at least you would like to think it did – but beyond that the number is almost completely arbitrary.

That this is how the 10,000-step target originated is sometimes used to disparage and disregard it. But what if they got it right?!

What does the research say?

Perhaps more by luck than judgement, but research into this topic has provided some support for 10,000 steps being a suitable goal. At the very least, it appears to be in the right ballpark.

Studies have found that risk of dementia, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and mortality (i.e., dying within a particular period of time) in both the general population and in people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes reduces as the number of daily steps increases, up to around 10,000 steps per day.

Other studies have suggested the best target may be a little lower. For example, a study from 2021 found that mortality risk was significantly lower in those performing more than 7,000 steps per day compared to those taking less than 7,000. Similarly, a review from 2022 which pooled data from nearly 50,000 people from 15 international cohorts concluded that, for people over the age of 60, risk was lowest in those taking between 6,000 and 8,000 steps per day (though for those under 60 risk was lowest in those taking between 8,000 and 10,000 steps per day).

Taken together, the available evidence therefore suggests that 10,000 steps per day is not an unreasonable target – despite its questionable roots!

How many steps should I be doing?

At this point it is worth taking a step back (pun not intended, but I will leave it anyway) and considering what this means for you. These studies, and most guidelines in general, can only provide a general idea of what we should aim for, based on average outcomes across a large number of people. Applying this information on an individual basis can be difficult, as there is a wide range of factors that can affect what is optimal for any given individual.

When it comes to the optimal number of steps, other relevant factors include things such as:

– How fast do you walk, and what is the terrain and/or incline like where you take most of your steps (not all steps are equal!)?

– What other types of activity do you take part in? If you swim or cycle, for example, you’ll be getting plenty of activity that is not going to be increasing the number of steps you take, but that will still be having health benefits.

– How healthy is your lifestyle otherwise, in relation to diet and stress levels, for example?

– What is your general health like – do you have any health conditions/problems?

– What are your health goals?


Trying to unpick all of this to reach an answer on the “best” number of steps for YOU is therefore a challenge.

As a result, it is perhaps more practical to consider the available evidence on steps, and physical activity more generally, in less specific terms. What is clear is that people who go from doing little physical activity to doing a little bit more than they were see the biggest benefits. It is then recommended to try and increase activity levels further over time, gradually in most cases. In essence, the more steps (or activity) you do, the more likely it is you will reap the benefits that physical activity can bring.

On an individual level this might mean taking a look at your current activity levels (by using a step tracker or logging your physical activity, for example) and considering how you can build on what you are doing. This can be much more practical than obsessing about meeting a specific target, which might seem a long way off for some people. Thinking about this in the context of your goals, and your own health, will help you to make informed choices about what you might like to change.

Should we scrap the 10,000 steps target then?

Difficulties in pinpointing a specific “optimal” level, or the suggestion above to focus on how you can build on your current levels rather than obsessing over specific targets, do not mean having broad guidelines is not useful though. These guidelines can still provide context when considering lifestyle choices, and what you might want to work towards. Having a clear target can also be motivational for many people. In the case of steps specifically, having a widely known target (i.e., 10,000 steps per day) can therefore be a good thing.

Going further, it is rare for public health messaging to be so clear and so widely known, so we should not look a gift horse in its mouth! Most people (including many healthcare professionals!) do not know the general physical activity guidelines beyond how many steps we “should” aim for. Most people probably don’t know specific dietary targets (such as how much fibre it is recommended we have each day), or what “normal” target ranges are for key health results either. So, when there is a widely known target for a metric that most people have a means to easily measure, and that studies have shown is a reasonable target in relation to a range of key health outcomes, it is probably better to embrace it rather than to shun it.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Irrelevant of where it came from, the 10,000 steps per day target is not unreasonable. Rather than fighting too hard against it because of question marks over its origin, we should embrace it and use it as base from which to help people become more active.

You should not be put off if you are currently a long way from this number of steps each day though. Try to increase your steps gradually over time – any increase is likely to have benefits, and some of the biggest health improvements we see are in people who go from doing very little activity to doing a bit more than they were.

Tips to help with increasing steps include walking to work or the shops instead of driving (where possible); parking further from your destination if you do need to drive (e.g., by using the furthest parking space from the entrance), or getting off the bus a stop or two earlier if you use public transport; taking the stairs instead of a lift or escalator; trying to fit in a morning, lunchtime and/or evening walk (it can help if you have a dog, so this could be your excuse to get one!); or joining a walking group, or asking a supportive friend or family member to join you.

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