If you haven't noticed — from the parade huffing by your suburban window every morning or the crowds you encounter at the nearby nature path — walking is big right now. The Rails to Trails conservancy charts a nearly 200 percent increase in trail use since last year; businesses are instituting “walking meetings"; and Anthony Fauci, M.D., the government coronavirus expert who's about to turn 80, says he manages to fit in a 3 1/2-mile power walk daily.
This burst of cardiovascular activity has undisputed health benefits for many. But don't be disappointed if you break out your fitness tracker to discover that you still haven't hit the holy grail of fitness walkers, the 10,000-step-per-day baseline. It turns out — and this is the really good news — that you may not even need to.
What's marketing, and what's medical research
In a 2017 Stanford University study that ranked 46 countries according to the average number of steps taken per day in each, the U.S. was 30th. But while actually taking steps may not be our thing, counting them is another story. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker on a regular basis, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. The rise of these devices, many of which use a 10,000-step goal as a baseline, subtly changed walking from a leisurely activity to a potentially competitive one and popularized step counting as a national pastime.
But lately that nice, round number, the equivalent of around five miles, has been the subject of scientific scrutiny, with good reason. “It likely originated as a marketing tool,” says I-Min Lee, M.D., a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “In 1965, the Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company in Japan sold a pedometer called Manpo-kei,” she says, which translates to “10,000-step meter.” The number caught on and has been used ever since — but without scientific basis, as studies, including one Lee coauthored in 2019, have shown.