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Is 10,000 steps best for my heart?

If you have a fitness tracker, it probably tells you to walk 10,000 steps a day. But is 10,000 steps a suitable target for heart health? And how does it compare with the recommended 30 minutes a day?

Couple walking on beach

If you’ve bought a fitness tracker or pedometer in the last few years, your default daily fitness goal is probably 10,000 steps a day.

Fitness instructors, professional dog walkers or cleaners may manage this easily. But for many of us with office jobs or chronic health conditions, 10,000 steps is a daunting target.

We don’t have figures on how many steps the average New Zealander takes each day, however the average Australian takes around 7400 steps a day, while the average American manages 4,000 to 5,000.

So it’s probably safe to assume that if you’re not managing 10,000 steps a day, you’re in good company.

Exactly how far is 10,000 steps?

The answer depends on the length of your step.

An averagely tall New Zealand woman (165cm) covers about seven kilometres in 10,000 steps, while an average New Zealand male (177cm) covers about seven and a half.

You can calculate a rough estimate of your stride length by multiplying your height by 0.413 if you’re a woman or 0.415 if you’re a man.

Why 10,000 steps?

The exact origin of the 10,000 steps target is hard to confirm. Most articles suggest it originates from a Japanese company which used it as a goal to promote a pedometer in the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Over the years some high-profile health organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), promoted the 10,000 steps as a target for healthy adults.

These days most health organisations, such as the WHO and the Heart Foundation, recommend 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week.

What has research found?

There is good evidence to show that walking less than 5000 steps a day increases your risk of heart disease and other chronic health conditions.

A large scale review of many studies into physical activity guidelines concluded that 10,000 steps a day was “a reasonable target for healthy adults” and advised 7000-8000 per day as a minimum.

More recently, a UK study suggested that 15,000 may be closer to a magic number when it comes to reducing risk of heart disease.

So are more steps better?

Not necessarily. A recent study of older women (average age of 72) found that the benefits associated with walking more steps started to level out around the 7500. It also found even moderate increases in steps had benefit for your cardiovascular health. This suggests that for some people, starting with a lower step goal may be better.

Unfortunately, there is no magic number. The most important message is to sit less and move more.

30 minutes a day or 10,000 steps, which is best?

The Heart Foundation recommends a minimum of 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate activity per week per week, which is in line with New Zealand Ministry of Health Guidelines. That works out at around 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

How does that compare to 10,000 steps?

For a start, both have proven benefits to your heart health like lowering your risk of coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

One of the main benefits of the 30 minute a day goal is that it doesn’t require an expensive fitness tracker to monitor what you’re doing.

You also don’t have to do the 30 minutes all in one go – even little bursts of exercise are helpful. This Heart Foundation funded research found that moving just two minutes every half hour reduced concentrations of blood sugar, insulin and fat in the blood.

If you can’t manage 30 minutes all in one go, try three 10-minute exercise “snacks”.

One of the upsides of the 10,000 steps target is that it encourages you to find other ways to include activity into your day, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, or doing some laps of the house during the TV commercials.

The downside is that if the steps target is too high, it can discourage some people from doing any exercise at all. A study of British teenagers showed that for some, the 10,000 steps target was demotivating.

It may also be too high a target for people recovering from a heart event, or those that haven’t exercised for a long time. In this case it is better to start with a lower target and increase your daily steps over time.

Will 10,000 steps a day help me lose weight?

That depends on how many steps you’re doing currently, what you eat and your metabolism. It also depends on how fast you take your steps and the incline of the ground you’re covering.

That said, if you currently do a lot less than 10,000 steps a day, upping your count could help you to shift some extra kilos.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Move more and sit less.

Whether it’s 30 minutes of activity most days, or 10,000 steps, the most important thing is to get moving. Remember, your couch is more dangerous than it seems!

It’s best to choose an activity target that fits most easily into your daily routine, rather than setting yourself a goal which is hard to achieve.

Your activity doesn’t necessarily have to be something you consider “exercise”. It could be vacuuming, mowing the lawns, or walking to the shops and back to buy your groceries.

If you have a chronic health condition or you haven’t exercised for a while, talk to your doctor before you start. Alternatively, a Green Prescription provider can help you develop a programme tailored to your needs.

Top ways to include more steps in your day

At home

  • Walk while you’re talking on your mobile.
  • Walk or cycle to the dairy rather than drive.
  • Do a quick lap or two of the house during TV ad breaks. Or, if you’re binge-watching your favourite series, do a quick 5 min walk round the house between episodes.
  • Meet your mate for a walk instead of a coffee or a drink.
  • March on the spot while you’re boiling a kettle, or waiting for the microwave.
  • Vacuum twice a week instead of once.
  • Put a skipping rope in your garage.

At work

  • If you take public transport, get off at an earlier stop and walk.
  • Take the stairs not the lift.
  • Walk two laps of the office while you’re waiting for a document to print.
  • Walk while you’re talking on your mobile.
  • Have standing or walking meetings.
  • Go and see someone at their desk instead of sending an email.

Read about the benefits of exercise