The Origin of a Myth, and How it Perpetuates Harm
It’s the default goal on a Fitbit or an Apple Watch. It’s recommended by official health and wellness authorities worldwide. At this point in time, the target of 10,000 steps per day has been burned into the collective consciousness, taken for granted as a given if one wants to attain good health. I remember working in Health Education over 15 years ago with such a focus on 10K steps and pedometers. We created promotions, health information, campaigns and even had team contests.
When we question that target, however, we find a whole lot of information that doesn’t exactly support this widely known “fact.” This newsletter is focused on the myth of 10K steps, as I was inspired after I listened to Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes explain in a recent episode of their excellent podcast Maintenance Phase. Their 10K podcast is just brimming with research facts, history, information illustrating the deep political roots of 10K steps. So I just want to focus on a few facts I took away from their super fabulous podcast episode (btw, every episode is just super fabulous):
- 10,000 is an entirely arbitrary figure in terms of fitness and health. The number itself was chosen by a group of Japanese researchers in the 1960s who determined that if the average Japanese person increased their steps to 10,000 a day, they would lose a certain amount of weight each year. These calculations, however, were based on the “calories in, calories out” model, which has since been thoroughly debunked, effectively turning their research into junk science. Moreover, it is absolutely worth mentioning that this fascination with step count was born out of a desire to make people thinner – not healthier. It is deeply rooted in anti-fatness.
- 10,000 was also chosen because the Japanese written language of 10,000 looked “good”. It was a “cool” symbol. Again, where is the focus on health?
- Citing an interest in children’s health, McDonald’s released the Go-Active Happy Meal, which included pedometers for kids, in 2004 – the same year the film “Supersize Me” came out. Coincidence? Not really: McDonald’s sales plummeted after the movie and the Go-Active Happy Meals were a way to increase profits during an era that demonized fast food. So this Happy Meal was about profit, not health, despite their claims.
- Additionally, given that all our bodies and experiences are unique, it doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to realize how deeply meaningless this standard of health is. Research has shown that different bodies respond to different forms of movement in different ways – findings which only become more varied as differences in age are taken into account.1 And while it is, for the most part, true that the human body benefits from movement in general, to suggest that 10,000 steps is the ideal for achieving health is ableist, on top of everything else. Many people with chronic pain, invisible illness, or other disabilities might be unable to achieve the 10,000-step mark. If this is our goalpost for what it means to be well, it implies that anyone who cannot meet the goal (or who chooses not to meet it) is unwell: an assumption that is simply not true.
- Happiness and enjoyment are components of wellness, too, and interestingly, as Gordon and Hobbes point out, emerging data shows that measuring the output of tasks can inhibit the enjoyment of said task. Simply put, people who track their steps may actually find less pleasure in their movement than people who do not keep track. Something definitive we know about human behavior: if we enjoy doing something, chances are good we will continue to do it. Therefore, if tracking our steps makes movement feel less like fun and more like a chore, we’re less likely to continue to do it with consistency–making striving for a certain step count something that could actually counteract our well-being in the long run.
On a final note, because this is so important: health has no moral value. A human being is worthy of respect and care, regardless of the status of their health. It might be tempting to read this post and walk away with the knowledge that the step count we should strive for is, simply, one that supports our health and well-being. While that’s not untrue, I want to offer a caution against the well-meaning but ultimately harmful caveat of “…as long as you’re healthy.” Why? Because in this day and age (and stage of neoliberal capitalism), health is a privilege. It should be a right–but it’s certainly not treated like one. Countless people in the United States and across the world do not have the resources to attain health. In the U.S. alone, many people cannot afford adequate healthcare even with health insurance coverage; additionally, those living under U.S. food apartheid (in places often referred to as “food deserts”) often lack access to meals that meet their nutritional needs. For other people, physical health may simply not be a priority–and that’s okay, too. The point is: no one owes their health to anyone else.
For a deep dive into the origin and history of step counting, listen to “The 10,000 Steps Myth” on Maintenance Phase!
1 Paluch, Amanda E et al. “Daily steps and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis of 15 international cohorts.” The Lancet. Public health vol. 7,3 (2022): e219-e228. doi:10.1016/S2468-2667(21)00302-9