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The Grand Number of 10,000

Everyone I know is concerned about health, living longer, but more importantly, living well. Eating right is an important factor in the process, but exercise is something most of us do not do plenty of.

It seems the easiest form of exercise is walking. It is something we all do, just not enough. Therefore, I tried to find out if my regular trips to the refrigerator were enough walking for a day, and it seems they are not.

The grand number of 10,000 steps per day is what everyone ‘in the know’ strives for. Many of us track our steps with smartwatches, pedometers or phone apps, and are of course, thrilled when we reach that all-important daily goal of 10,000 steps. For me, the number is demoralizing.

I have always wondered who decided 10,000 steps is the perfect number. I assumed it must have been years of research by neuroscientists who came up with this scientifically proven figure. Not so! The grand number ‘10,000’ dates back to a marketing campaign, conducted shortly before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. A company began selling a pedometer called the Manpo-kei. ‘Man’ means 10,000, and ‘po’ means meter. It was hugely successful, and the number seems to have stuck.

Let us look at this whole walking thing. Studies have compared the health benefits of 5,000 versus 10,000 steps, and, not surprisingly, the higher number is better. However, until recently, all the numbers in between had not been studied.

New research from a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and her team, focused on a group of more than 16,000 women in their seventies. Each woman spent a week wearing a device to measure movement during waking hours. Then the researchers waited.

When they followed up with each woman, four years later, 504 had died. How many steps do you think the survivors had been doing? Was it the grand 10,000 steps a day?

In fact, the average number for survivors was only 5,500. Women who took more than 4,000 steps a day were significantly more likely to still be alive than those who did only 2,700 steps. Surprisingly, such a small difference could have consequences for something as critical as longevity.

By that logic, you might assume the more steps they took, the better. That was not the case. The benefits of walking plateaued at 7,500. There was no difference in longevity in those who walked 7,500 or those who took 10,000 or more.

What can we conclude from all of this? Walking is important, but walking 10,000 steps is not.

Measure a trek around the neighbourhood, and if it comes out to 7,500, set that as your goal. If you enjoy it, walk longer. Count if you find it motivates you, but set a goal that is right for you. It might be more than 10,000 steps, it might be less, or it might include tossing your tracking device entirely. What I do know is, walking to the refrigerator countless times a day is not quite enough exercise.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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