Don't Worry About Getting Those 10,000 Steps a Day

Smash your Fitbit...

Ubiquitous smartwatch/fitness tracker devices – like the popular Fitbit –  seem to have succeeded in getting half of America obsessed with the number 10,000. They've convinced us that unless we're grinding out 10,000 steps every day, we're destined for a short, miserable life beset with chronic maladies.

Look, no one is a greater proponent of movement and exercise than I am... And as we'll discuss today, it's essential to good health.

But this magical ideal of 10,000 is made-up nonsense...

The number didn't come from medical science. It was a marketing gimmick.

In 1964, a Japanese company created one of the first pedometers – machines that track how many steps you take. The company wanted an "auspicious" number to help sell it... And 10,000 felt right.

It wasn't based in science or any kind of research. It was nothing more than advertising psychology.

A study out of the U.K.'s National Health Service tested folks to find the actual "perfect" number of steps. An agency called Public Health England created the "Active 10" program to encourage more Britons to exercise. Through a trial of their program, researchers sorted volunteers into groups. One group had to meet the 10,000 steps-per-day goal, performed at whatever pace they liked. The other group – the Active 10 – had to do three 10-minute walks a day at a brisk but moderate pace. That worked out to about 6,000 to 9,000 steps.

It turns out the intensity, not the distance, makes the difference. Those who did the three 10-minute walks at a brisk but moderate pace performed 30% more moderate-level exercise than those who met the 10,000 steps. And that's the real key to health.

So how do you know if you're working at a moderate level of exertion? You can tell easily with some simple, common-sense gauges:

1. Breathing. If you're breathing heavier than usual but aren't straining, you're exercising at a  moderate level. If your breathing is deep and hard, you're exercising at an intense level.

2. Talking. At moderate levels, you can carry on a conversation, but you can't sing. At intense levels, you can only get out a few words here and there.

People tend to think the longer and harder you exercise, the more you benefit. This is not true. Studies show marathoners have stiff arteries, specifically the aorta – the major artery leading from the heart. This leads to higher blood pressure and a greater possibility of having a heart attack.

As I said, I am a strong advocate of regular movement and exercise, but the key is moderation.

If you are an endurance athlete, like a marathoner or a triathlete, make sure you talk regularly with a doctor who can check your blood pressure and artery elasticity. (And listen, for all you hardcore runners out there, this is coming from a three-time marathoner – including two NYC marathons. And yes, I finished all of them, even if my pace was... methodical.)

If you aren't a marathoner, don't work out like one. You can get all the benefits of exercise with "lower impact" activities like long walks, gardening, and yoga.

It's also much easier to start out with those 6,000 steps at your own pace and gradually work up to a brisker pace.

At a moderate pace, walking 6,000 steps is roughly three miles. The average 60-year-old walks at about 2.8 miles per hour, so you'd need to walk for a little more than an hour to get those steps. Ten city blocks measures roughly 2,000 steps, so an easy way to keep track is doing that distance three times.

Better still, you can break 6,000 steps into chunks: Do 20 minutes in the morning, 20 at lunch, and 20 after dinner (or walk those 10 blocks at three different times of the day). Over time, try and get those steps in more quickly. Maybe you could manage the same distance in 15 minutes three times a day, or you could try for the Britons' version of an Active 10 three times a day.

Getting a mix of moderate and intense exercise is the best formula for optimal health. But if you aren't up for the intensity, try to meet that moderate level of exertion. If you want to do the 6,000 steps a day, be sure it's at a brisk pace to ensure you're at that moderate exercise level. Then after you work up to that, try adding in a few intense intervals of jogging. Try to do intervals of higher-intensity exercise at least once or twice a week.

Regular movement also provides another key health benefit... one that we need today more than ever. If you're a subscriber to Retirement Millionaire, you can read about that right here. If not, click here to sign up today. And if you sign up now, you'll be able to access our September issue online when it publishes tomorrow. You won't want to miss our take on the latest COVID hysteria.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 8, 2020