Activity trackers – wristbands and small clip-on devices you can wear to monitor fitness-related goals like how many steps you take each day – are making big news right now.
Do these trackers help you live more healthfully? How helpful are they in weight management? We’ll look at research and people’s personal stories related to those questions in an upcoming Smart Bytes®. First, let’s step back and look at the central premise behind those activity trackers: What do we really know about setting 10,000 steps a day as a strategy to promote health and vitality?
What’s the basis of setting goals based on steps?
A recommendation based on analysis of multiple studies calls for adults to get 30-60 minutes a day of moderate physical activity at least five days a week, or 20-60 minutes a day of vigorous activity on at least three days each week, or some equivalent combination of these. According to the position stand of the American College of Sports Medicine, this recommendation has strong supporting evidence, and relates to reducing heart disease and premature death from any cause. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends accumulating 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity daily to reduce cancer risk.
- Moderate activity (defined as “3 METs” in research) is estimated as a pace of about 100 steps a minute in most step-counting research. Overall, moderate activity is defined as an intensity ranging from this to a brisk pace, so could include up to about 130 steps per minute.
- That means 30 minutes of moderate walking is typically equivalent to about 3000 to 3700 steps for healthy adults..
Key point: These recommended levels of activity do not refer to all physical movement in a day. They refer to activity at a moderate or vigorous intensity that occurs in blocks of at least 10 minutes at a time. Recommended amounts of physical activity are in addition to basic activities of daily living. Walking downstairs to do a load of laundry, walking up the driveway to get the mail, and hustling that last block to catch a bus or cab may all benefit health as part of overall movement – but they don’t count toward this target’s tally.
- A daily step total of 5,000 or less is considered a sedentary lifestyle.
- Adding 3,000 to 3,700 steps from 30 minutes of moderate activity to the activity from the rest of the day in this lifestyle equals a total of 8,000 to 8,700 steps.
Is 10,000 the target for everyone?
Despite that theoretical framework, intervention trials and observational studies suggest that people meeting the recommendation of at least 30 minutes a day (or at least 150 minutes a week) of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity may accumulate a total of about 7,000 to 10,000 steps daily. The lower end of this range is especially likely when giving an average for the week, if only five days included moderate to vigorous activity.
Many adults may most successfully reach and maintain a healthy weight by including 45 to 60 minutes a day of moderate activity (or equivalent vigorous activity). Research suggests that reaching an hour a day of moderate activity in addition to activities of normal daily life may bring even greater health benefit than the minimum of 30 minutes a day. Therefore, aiming to reach or modestly exceed 10,000 steps daily is a reasonable health goal for those who are able.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, people with low levels of physical activity who increase their average daily steps by 2,000 steps per day do benefit their health, especially if this helps reach a total of 7,000 or more. For individuals with disability or who have or are recovering from chronic illness, who walk at a slower pace and have a low level of baseline activity throughout their day, research reviews point to benefits from accumulating moderate activity to recommended levels or whatever is possible. This may translate for some to a total daily step count of 4,500 to 7,000 per day.
- Boosting steps by 2,000 a day has decreased systolic blood pressure by about 4 “points” (mm Hg), independent of any change in weight.
- A 2,000-step increase in daily steps has produced some weight loss, even though it may not be enough to achieve the full change in weight or waist someone is targeting. If you’ve been gaining weight, a 2,000-step boost in daily steps may be enough to stop the gain, especially if you cut back by just 100 calories on what you’re consuming.
- A 4,000-step increase in daily steps by people with type 2 diabetes has helped lower their A1C levels (a measure of overall blood sugar control).
Should I target time or steps?
At an earlier stage of my life, playing with kids at home, or running around at their sporting events in later years, as long as I got 30 minutes of walking each day, I easily reached a 10,000-step total. However, when I bought a new pedometer last year, I was shocked to find how low my daily activity had become as an empty-nester working primarily from my home office. I’ll get over my embarrassment and share more of what I learned – and what I’ve done about it – in a future Smart Bytes® post. The bottom line is that because of the low activity level of most of my day, it takes more intentional activity than I’d realized for me to reach levels of activity associated with health. And data from federal surveys shows I’m not alone.
- A problem with focusing solely on time (such as a daily 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity, or equivalent vigorous activity) lies in the overall sedentary lifestyle many of us lead today. The association of this time-based amount of physical activity with better health stems largely from studies involving people whose lifestyles included basic life activities beyond what many experience today.
- On the other hand, some people might do enough light activity all day with slow walking or light chores to reach a total step count of 7,000 or 8,000 without ever getting any of the moderate or vigorous activity that raises heart rate enough to improve heart-respiratory fitness. In addition, a focus on steps will miss activity like swimming that doesn’t include steps.
Take a well-rounded view of how your activity habits are supporting your health; see where you are relative to both time and steps. Then, once you identify the gaps in your lifestyle, you can focus your attention there. Actually, overall health requires other types of physical activity, too, including strength-training to maintain lean muscle mass and strong bones, and exercise that targets flexibility and balance. We need to keep all of this from slipping off our radar.
How low is too low?
Research now supports the view that how much moderate-to-vigorous activity we get and how much we sit are really two distinct health issues. People who spend most of the day in a highly sedentary pattern do seem to face health risks, even if they meet the time-based recommendations for 30 to 60 minutes of activity.
One group of researchers that studies physical activity and inactivity related to health has developed a scale by which they group people based on the average steps they take.
People who likely meet current recommended levels of physical activity are categorized as:
- 12,500 or more steps/day = Highly active
- 10,000 to 12,499 steps/day = Active
- 7,500 to 9,999 steps/day = Somewhat active
People considered physically inactive are categorized as:
- 5,000 to 7,499 steps/day = Low active
- 2,500 to 4,999 steps/day = Sedentary with limited activity
- Less than 2,500 steps/day = Sedentary with only basal activity
Here is the recommendation from Catrine Tudor-Locke and John M. Schuna, Jr., of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at the renowned Pennington Biomedical Research Center:
Specifically, we recommend that adults avoid averaging <5,000 steps/day and strive to average ≥7,500 steps/day, of which ≥3,000 steps (representing at least 30 min) should be taken at a cadence ≥100 steps/min. They should also practice regularly breaking up extended bouts of sitting with ambulatory activity. Simply put, we must consider advocating a whole message to “walk more, sit less, and exercise.”
What can best assist you in reaching – and keeping – a lifestyle with the physical activity that promotes your health and vitality, helping you live the life you want?
That’s a question that each of us may answer differently. Consider your current level of fitness, your health concerns, and what types of changes in activity patterns will be most important for you.
Come back for future editions of Smart Bytes® for more background and stories of others’ experience to help in those decisions…including insights that will help you make sense of the shockwave-creating stories that people gained weight when they used activity trackers. (As you might guess, there’s more to that than what’s seen at first glance!) In fact, sign up to receive Smart Bytes® by email (see sidebar) so you won’t miss a thing on this and other topics that help you take healthy living from daunting to doable!
Resources You May Find Helpful
*Update 2017 (programs originally listed have changed)*
The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition offers a wide range of ideas to help establish physical activity in your lifestyle, targeting both kids and adults.
The NIH We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) program offers tips for reducing screen time (a big component of sedentary time for many people). Although aimed at kids, these can be applicable to many of us.
A program called America on the Move developed a lot of valuable resources, including this 100 Ways to Add 2000 Steps tip sheet to help you get started.
Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenese MR et al. Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2011; 43(7):1334-1359. [ACSM Position Stand]
World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective, 2007: Washington, DC. [You can access the report and its updates through the AICR website: http://www.aicr.org/research/research_science_home.html ]
Tudor-Locke C, Craig CL, Thyfault JP, Spence JC. A step-defined sedentary lifestyle index: <5000 steps/day. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Feb;38(2):100-14.
Tudor-Locke C, Craig CL, Brown WJ et al. How Many Steps/day are Enough? For Adults. J Behav Nutr Phys Activ. 2011; 8:79-96.
Tudor-Locke C, Craig CL, Aoyagi Y et al. How many steps/day are enough? For older adults and special populations. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2011; 8: 80.
Tudor-Locke C, Schuna JM JR. Steps to preventing type 2 diabetes: exercise, walk more, or sit less? Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2012; 3:142.
Article by speaker and author @KarenCollinsRD