The idea of getting 10,000 steps a day has become very popular as a benchmark for daily step count, but how important is it?
We have all heard the recommendations to increase our daily step count and reach that magic number. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park your car at the far end of the lot, or get off the bus a couple of blocks before work or home and walk. Stand up and walk around for a few minutes every hour (as many smartwatches remind us to do!). Does this movement actually burn calories, and is it doing you any good, even when you don’t crack a sweat?
As it turns out, the 10,000 step measurement is somewhat arbitrary. The number actually came from a Japanese pedometer created in 1965 named Manpo-kei, which translates to “10,000 steps meter”. Over the succeeding years, that magic number seems to have become ingrained in health and fitness circles as the default to nudge people towards being more active throughout the day by aiming for this magical step count. Yes, it works sometimes, but do we need to get caught up on the numbers?
Answer: Only if it is an achievable, sustainable goal. Instead of striving for some 50-plus-year-old benchmark, my advice is to find ways to move every day that suit your body and your life.
Forget the 10,000 step goal if that is not sustainable for you, and set your own goal that will help keep you on your toes (literally).
Whether your goal is a 10,000 daily step count or 5,000, or not counting steps at all, regular movement throughout the day in some form is important. Let’s uncover why by delving first into metabolic health.
Our metabolism, or metabolic rate, is essentially the sum of all chemical reactions in the body, most of which turn food into usable energy (measured in kilojoules or calories) for our body to use in every cell. Metabolic rate varies according to your age, weight, gender, body composition, illness, environmental considerations, hormones and many, many other little tweaks here and there that slightly alter the amount and speed of energy turnover. To further complicate this idea, your metabolic rate varies as your body, activity, energy intake or health changes – sometimes daily.
Your metabolic rate is made up of three parts. Firstly, about 5-10 per cent of energy consumed is used to digest and transport nutrients to your body. Yes, eating burns calories! This is known as the thermic effect of food, or thermogenesis.
Secondly, around 50–80 per cent of your daily energy use is purely used for keeping you alive through breathing, circulating blood, repairing cells, creating and managing hormones and keeping all of your organs working.
The third part of the metabolic rate is the energy used for activity, and this is the only part of our metabolic rate that we have any real, immediate control over in relation to energy expenditure.
Workouts and any other deliberate exercise can have a vastly positive effect on your metabolic rate by ramping up energy expenditure to fuel movement, changes to breathing, dealing with physical stress, and processing brain signals. We also use energy for repair and recovery, which is the key factor in long-term boosts to metabolism post-exercise (ie you continue to burn calories after you cool down).
However, incidental exercise can also have a profound effect on our energy usage. The energy used through movement during waking hours that is not deliberate exercise is known as NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and could account for the vast differences we see in how much people can eat and how they gain or lose weight. It can also have a significant impact on overall health and mortality (as shown in this Harvard study, where 16,000 older women were tracked to determine links between daily step counts and the age at which they died).
The human body is an incredible machine and can change NEAT in accordance with changes to energy, which can contribute to metabolic adaptation (the body’s attempt to maintain homeostasis through changes to energy production). If someone restricts calories for a long period of time, their body will actually move LESS without them even realising. They will fidget less, be inclined to move less, may have trouble with cognitive function, put less into their workouts, and may even consciously skip workouts or their usual walks because they don’t feel up to it. This is part of the reason we plateau when trying to lose weight, or may not see the results we are after at all.
Conversely, some people naturally burn more energy through heat production and additional movement if they consume more food than they need! Even small, seemingly trivial movement can substantially alter our metabolic rate.
While our body tries its best to maintain homeostasis through tricky processes such as metabolic adaptation, we can use this control over physical activity to our advantage. When we physically exert ourselves, even just a little bit by walking a lap up and down the hallway as a work or study break, stretching in our seats or getting up to make a cup of tea, our body ramps up energy use to match. We may breathe a little harder, our heart beat increases and we even use energy to keep up with cognitive functions, such as putting one foot infront of the other, keeping balance and not pouring boiling water over our hand.
In addition, there’s more benefit to regular movement than just the burn (calorie burn, that is!).
- Our muscles contract, moving waste products through our system more efficiently for excretion.
- We get a ‘brain break’ and can use these moments of activity as a sort of meditation or contemplation time; movement is great for our mental health.
- Being active helps promote better quality sleep.
- Activity helps moderate blood sugar levels (sugar, or carboohydrates, are our go-to fuel source for movement, so this macro will be used first for increased energy needs).
- Any sort of resistance, even walking or carrying out tasks such as hanging washing or pushing a vacuum around helps work muscles and promote strong bones.
Of course, all of these benefits are amplified with planned exercise and higher intensity workouts, but the purpose of this piece is to simply encourage you to MOVE a little more in any way that works for you – every day.
Forget the 10,000 step goal if that is not sustainable for you, and set your own goal that will help keep you on your toes (literally). If you have a smartwatch or fitness tracker, have a look at your stats over the previous couple of weeks and determine how many steps a day or other measurement is realistic for you, then add a little extra to help you progress. This may be an extra 1,000 or 2,000 steps or an extra 5 or 10 minutes per day of active minutes. Whatever metric you choose, make sure you can do it consistently or you risk losing momentum and giving up.
Consistence always beats perfection, so off you go – get up from your seat and go stretch your legs!
If you would like a little extra support to increase your daily movement or make healthy changes to your diet and lifestyle, let’s chat about working together. My premium coaching program offers tailored daily practices, information and 1:1 support to help you reach your goals, all for just $20 per week. There are no lock-in contracts or minimum commitment – stay as long as you need to. Book a time to chat today.