Walk Like Japan: The Effect of 10,000 Steps

By Martha Michael

There are certain ideals humankind can agree on: Treating our fellow man with respect; making sure our children are safe; reaching 10,000 steps a day. Wait -- what?!

How did we come up with the (seemingly random) goal of logging 10,000 steps a day on our fitness apps?

Going the Distance

Jesse Singal answers that question in an article in New York Magazine called “How Many Steps a Day Should You Really Walk?” First of all, she tallies 10,000 steps as approximately five miles. But for its history, you have to look a lot farther than five miles away -- more like a quarter of the way around the globe.

Though it’s a hot topic around the water cooler today, the concept didn’t even start in this century, according to Singal. The pedometer idea was borne out of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and the first pedometers were called “man-po-kei.” The word is best explained in parts, according to Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Center.

  • Man stands for "10,000"
  • Po stands for "step"
  • Kei stands for "meter" or "gauge"

The number 10,000 was chosen simply because it was significant in Japanese culture at the time, Tudor-Locke says.

Bringing it Home

The big question is -- what’s the impact of the 10,000-step rule here and now?

Tudor-Locke gives a thumbs down to what she calls the “one size fits all” approach, saying it’s ineffective. Some experts think it’s an intimidating number, especially to sedentary types.

A study in Europe, according to Singal, showed a significant drop in the rate of mortality when a person went from being completely inactive to becoming somewhat active. It didn’t require a jump to the stratosphere in a person’s activity level to bring about real changes.

The other problem is the issue of food intake. If you’re looking at the steps in terms of overall health, you have to address diet. And Jeff Goldsmith, a biostatistics professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, says a person can’t hyperfocus on one and ignore the other without negative health ramifications. Research seems to indicate they are two very separate behaviors.

Overall, we don't have to throw out the whole program just because it might be a lofty goal for some. Getting people to move a little more, to increase what they’re doing, even to 5,000 steps a day, is better than nothing. The diet issue may have to be addressed separately.

You might say that “10,000 steps” in any language equals one giant leap for mankind -- if we could get everyone to do it.