Watch Your Steps!

The punk rock duo The Proclaimers are Scottish twins Craig and Charlie Reid. Now 58, the Reid’s were born just a month after I was, back in 1962. Even though The Proclaimers produced eleven albums and sold five million copies, I only know them for their 1988 chart-topper, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. It’s the song thrumming in my head every time I’m close to getting my 10,000 steps for the day.

5,514.  Good Lord, I’m only halfway to my 10,000 steps today and it’s already two in the afternoon.  I need to get moving.  I even worked out this morning (lifting doesn’t get you many steps).  As usual, I strapped on my (Fitbit) tracker immediately after waking up but I’m usually further along by now.  I’m gonna have to go long with the dog tonight if I have any shot at making the magic number.

Magic number?  10,000 steps?  Who made this the “minimum for good health”?  A Japanese pedometer company; that’s who.  In 1965, they nicknamed one of their trackers the “10,000 step meter” and the number stuck all these years later.  Not that 10,000 steps has any significance when it comes to health benefits.  It’s all relative to whatever number you normally walk.  For that reason, we Americans can go less than half the 10,000 and still lower our mortality rate in a big way.

If you’re reading this post and you’re Amish, you’re already pooh-poohing 10,000 steps.  You and your people average 14,000-18,000/day just by removing motor vehicles from your world.  If you’re Australian or Swiss, 10,000 is just another day in the outback or the Alps (yodelayheehoo!).  Even the Japanese find a way to average 7,500 steps/day inside a small island nation.  Bringing up the rear?  The Americans, of course (drum roll, please…).  We clock an average of 4,800 steps a day – downright pathetic for residents of the fourth largest land-mass country in the world.  Is it any coincidence the U.S. makes and sells more vehicles than any other country besides China?

Source: Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, National Cancer Institute

Back to the “magical” 10,000 steps.  Let’s diminish the facts, shall we?  A recent collaborative five-year study of 15,000+ participants determined as few as 4,400 steps a day associates to a 40% reduction in mortality rate (when the norm is more like 2,700 steps).  Make it to 7,500 steps and the mortality rate drops by 65%.  In other words, you’re doing your body good well below 10,000 steps.  Unless you’re Amish, Australian, or Swiss.  Sorry, you people have to keep going.

Alas, no collaborative study nor determined blog post is going to change the world’s obsession with 10,000 steps.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instead recommends five hours of moderate exercise a week (or half that much in “vigorous” exercise).  Doctors prefer a rather vague recommendation of “about 2,000 steps more than you normally walk”.  But none of that shuts down tracker production: 33 million devices shipped in the first quarter of this year alone.  You know who you are; doing mindless laps in the kitchen late at night just to “close your rings”.  10,000 steps remains the benchmark no matter the expert advice.

Close those rings!

Speaking for Americans at least, the magic number really is burned into our culture.  We’ve switched out our most glam watches for fitness trackers (because even a Rolex can’t count steps).  We download apps, print out weekly results, and obsess over “rings”, consecutive days, and “personal bests”.  We get cheap thrills when our tracker vibrates 10,000 and those little digital fireworks shower the screen.  Companies offer employees financial incentives if they can demonstrate extended habits of 10,000+/day.  We are beguiled of time and money for this fairly arbitrary number.

[Side note: The other day I woke up and checked my Fitbit history, only to discover I’d hit 9,999 steps the day before.  Didn’t bum me out; still strapped on the tracker and started a new day.  Kinda proud of that.  On the other hand, one time I strapped my tracker to my ankle to try to get “steps” out of a cycle class.  Didn’t work.  Not so proud of that.]

The pertinent lyrics of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be” go like this:  But I would walk 500 miles, And I would walk 500 more, Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles, To fall down at your door.  No wonder I’ve got that song on the brain.  I don’t think I’d walk a thousand miles, even for my girl.  But I would walk five miles (about 10,000 steps) to hit my daily tracker goal.

Some content sourced from the 6/12/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “10,000 Steps a Day Is A Myth.  The Number to Stay Healthy Is Far Lower”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.