The 10,000 Step Shuffle
10,000 steps a day for better health. That could be the tagline for any number of pedometers, phone apps, smart watches, and anything else that can measure the number of steps you take a day. Hundreds of thousands, and likely millions of people have strived to achieve the 10,000 steps a day goal in order to become more healthy.
The only problem? The 10,000 number wasn’t based on any medical research. It comes from a 1965 marketing campaign for one of the first pedometers on the market in Japan. The Japanese character for “10,000” looks like a person walking, so the company thought it was a clever target (10,000 steps also happens to be an achievable, yet challenging goal). This target was widely copied. I’m not aware of any pedometer technology that doesn’t use 10,000 steps a day as a baseline health goal.
After this, something commonplace, yet widely underappreciated happened: the marketing reality distortion effect. 10,000 steps became associated with being healthy — and, in contrast, not achieving 10,000 steps a day was a mark against your health record. In many people’s minds, the 10,000 steps idea had the imprimatur of medical research (of some form), but without any actual research underlying it. This is what many marketing campaigns do — and aim to do — to change what people think of as true. But the result is that people believe something is scientific when it’s not. Not one bit.
The problem goes beyond confusion in consumers. Public ideas about science and health and education influence research (or infect research, depending on your perspective). The number 10,000 acts like an anchor — researchers focus on testing the 10,000 number against various controls without questioning the 10,000 number in the first place.
Later research has focused on figuring out whether there is a particularly important number of steps to get per day and what that number might be. Seems closer to 7,000 steps. But, as ever, things are complicated.
Is it such a shame that 10,000 steps became a widely pursued health goal? Not necessarily. More physical activity, of practically any sort, improves overall health. And if setting a challenging goal made more people increase their physical activity, isn’t that, ultimately, a good thing? Admonitions from doctors to “get more physical activity” may be accurate, but they’re not terribly specific or actionable. For many people, a specific goal and the technological means to track progress towards that goal is more tangible.
10,000 steps is also in the general ballpark of healthy. Would I be quibbling if 9,000 steps was an inflection point and most apps simply recommended 10,000 as a general baseline? Or if it was 11,000? Or 9,342?
In Australia, the 10,000 steps idea also became the basis for much broader health campaigns. A cursory reading of the research suggests that these campaigns were largely successful. The government’s own measures suggest that the campaigns increased elderly activity through awareness, social facilitation, encouragement, and – of course – the 10,000 steps goal and pedometer technology.
But it’s important to examine the costs of this sleight-of-hand as well. The first thing to note is that any kind of “steps-per-day” goal is intrinsically linked to step-counting technology. No one is going to spend day after day counting every step they take. At best, they might estimate how many kilometers or miles they walked. So counting steps is a health strategy that requires consumers to buy a product. It’s a strange thing to bind a perfectly free behavior that promotes health – physical activity – to a tracking technology.
A more direct problem is that “number of steps” is a hopelessly impoverished measure of physical activity. It makes no distinction between high intensity and low intensity activity. It does not distinguish between aerobic and non-aerobic activity. You can lift weights all day and your pedometer will only register a small number of steps. Ride a bike? Go swimming? The technology has improved, but its still better at doing what it was designed to do – counting steps – than counting other physical activity.
Yes, for some segments of the population, walking is a very easy, common, and accessible activity. I don’t see many 80-year-olds playing street hoops. But consider all of the things that this metric is missing.
Even if you grant that "number of steps" is an important metric, how accurate are pedometers and cell phones at measuring that number? I suspect that the answer has been “not very accurate” or at least “less accurate than people believe”. Though more advanced technology should, in principle, be increasing their accuracy.
The research on habit formation also suggests that goal-oriented behavior (like getting to X number of steps-a-day or getting your tenth coffee free) can undermine habit formation. Habits, in the scientific sense, are responses to cues — the cue precedes the behavior. But goals keep our focus on the outcome; we tend to perform the behavior because of the goal, not because of the cue. So setting these health goals can have a perverse effect: make it harder to develop a healthy physical activity habit.
Although the 10,000 steps a day idea has had some benefits, perhaps companies should have had to disclose that 10,000 steps is an entirely arbitrary goal, without any basis in medical research. Of course, if customers received that kind of notice, I imagine it would undermine trust in the company. So this kind of thing will likely continue.
Guardian News and Media. (2018, September 3). Watch your step: Why the 10,000 daily goal is built on Bad science. The Guardian. Retrieved May 2, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/03/watch-your-step-why-the-10000-daily-goal-is-built-on-bad-science
For research on ideal steps per day, check out: Paluch, A. E., Gabriel, K. P., Fulton, J. E., Lewis, C. E., Schreiner, P. J., Sternfeld, B., ... & Carnethon, M. R. (2021). Steps per day and all-cause mortality in middle-aged adults in the coronary artery risk development in young adults study. JAMA network open, 4(9), e2124516-e2124516 and Tudor-Locke, C., Craig, C. L., Brown, W. J., Clemes, S. A., De Cocker, K., Giles-Corti, B., ... & Blair, S. N. (2011). How many steps/day are enough? For adults. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8(1), 1-17.
For an overview of the Australian 10,000 step campaign, see: Vandelanotte, C., Van Itallie, A., Brown, W., Mummery, W. K., & Duncan, M. J. (2020). Every step counts: Understanding the success of implementing the 10,000 Steps project. Stud Health Technol Inform, 268, 15-30.
On the accuracy of pedometer apps, see: Åkerberg, A., Lindén, M., & Folke, M. (2012). How accurate are pedometer cell phone applications?. Procedia Technology, 5, 787-792 and Beltrán-Carrillo, V. J., Jiménez-Loaisa, A., Alarcón-López, M., & Elvira, J. L. (2019). Validity of the “Samsung Health” application to measure steps: A study with two different samsung smartphones. Journal of sports sciences, 37(7), 788-794.
For a great discussion of the reward-habit connection (or conflict), check out the article below, especially the section on rewards and habit formation. Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2009). The habitual consumer. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(4), 579-592.