Debunking The 10K-Step Rule

I secretly congratulate myself when my Noom app shows I’ve walked 5K steps. If I manage to reach 7K, I’m tickled pink. 10K steps??? Not likely.

Putting one foot in front of the other 10,000 times is a cakewalk when I’m roaming the streets of Paris (will I ever see Paris again?). Otherwise, it’s no walk in the park. 

So when I discovered a Brigham and Women’s Hospital study on how walking impacts the long-term health outcomes of older women, I was ecstatic to learn that walking 10K steps a day isn’t the gold standard! FYI, the hospital is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School “recognized internationally for its excellent and innovative patient care, biomedical research, and education and training programs for physicians, scientists and health care professionals,” says its website. 

Published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the survey results of 16,741 (primarily white) women with a mean age of 72 years proclaim: 

Women who averaged approximately 4.4K daily steps had significantly lower mortality rates during a follow-up of 4.3 years compared with the least active women who took approximately 2.7K daily steps.  

And, as women took more steps each day, their mortality rates progressively decreased before leveling at about 7.5K steps a day. 

Translation: While walking at least 4.4K steps a day can help lower your risk of dying, you won’t fall apart if you stop stepping at 7.5K.  

While no one would dispute the health and longevity benefits of going the extra mile (assuming 2K steps per mile), it probably won’t further decrease our risk of mortality.

To measure participants’ steps, the study team required them to wear an ActiGraph GT3X+ accelerometer device — a research-grade unit — on their hips during all waking hours for seven consecutive days.  Over the 4.3 years the women were followed, 504 died. 

 ➠ Women who walked an average of 2.7K steps a day were at the greatest risk of death, with 275 dying. 

 ➠ Those who walked an average of 4.4K steps a day had a 41 percent lower risk of death.

  Risk of death continued to decrease with more steps walked, up to 7,500 steps per day, after which risk leveled off.

  Interestingly, the speed at which a woman walked – among all the women who walked the same number of daily steps – wasn’t associated with risk of death. 

The average American takes between 4K and 5K steps a day, previous studies show.  No one is sure where the 10K-step goal originated, but it’s been surmised that it started in 1965 when a Japanese company launched a pedometer called amanpo-kei, which means “10,000 steps meter” in Japanese.

Due to the observational nature of the study, the authors couldn’t definitively determine whether walking more lowers mortality or women in better health step more, reported the article in JAMA. Women with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and less than excellent or good self-rated health were excluded, however.  What’s more, previous experiments do confirm the beneficial effects of  physical activity on short-term health markers,  including  blood pressure, insulin and glucose levels, lipid profile and inflammation. 

Further research in younger and more diverse populations is necessary to determine if the findings apply to other groups, especially to those who take more steps. The study also didn’t assess outcomes such as quality of life and risk of specific diseases. 

So, ladies, keep walking. But if you stop at 7.5K, or even 4.4K steps, you’ll still be doing yourself a world of good! 

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  • Cathy McIvor

    I loved this, Geri. I live in AZ, where it is WAY TOO HOT to walk, even at night. I hate it! I used to walk every day since the gyms are closed. Nothing firmed my bottom half better than walking! But, you know what? Tonight I am going – I don’t care how hot it is!

    • GeriFOF

      Hi Cathy,

      LOVE your comment. And so happy the article inspired you. I went to Scottsdale for years in the 1990s, so I experienced your brutal heat.

      My goal is to do at least 4.4K steps when I walk, and then maybe it will spur me to reach 6K and even 7K.

      Take it easy and be safe. COVID seems to be attacking Arizona like it did here in New York.

      Fondly,
      Geri