The Origin of the 10,000-Steps-Per-Day Goal

The media, health personalities, and our own pedometers constantly tell us to aim for 10,000 steps a day. So, should we?

The Origin of the 10,000-Steps-Per-Day Goal

I remember when I first heard the magical 10,000-steps-a-day rule. My mother had come home with a pedometer for my father and me, telling us we should aim for this set number of steps each day. She was a health professional, so I never questioned the why of it. That was about 15 years ago. Today, the media, health professionals, and even our fancy fitness bands still tell us to aim for that universal 10,000-step goal. But where did this number come from? And is it the right goal for all of us?

Jesse Singal from NYMag made an interesting point in his article — we've all been abiding by this 10,000-step rule, but no one could say where this regulation comes from. All I know is my pedometer scolds me each time I don't reach that 10,000-step goal that was set forth.

Professor Catrine Tudor-Locke studies walking behavior at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Center; she writes in a recent paper about how the “value of 10000 steps/day is gaining popularity with the media." But its origins “can be traced to Japanese walking clubs and a business slogan 30+ years ago.” However, the diets of 1960s Japan are quite different than Americans in 2015.

Theodore Bestor, a Harvard researcher of Japanese society and culture, confirmed this to Singal in an email:

“By all accounts, life in Japan in the 1960s was less calorie-rich, less animal fat, and much less bound up in cars.”

The other side of the coin is that 10,000 steps a day may be too lofty a goal for some and too small a goal for others. Tudor-Locke explained:

“Preliminary evidence suggests that a goal of 10,000 steps/day may not be sustainable for some groups, including older adults and those living with chronic diseases. Another concern about using 10,000 steps/day as a universal step goal is that it is probably too low for children, an important target population in the war against obesity.”

So, how many steps are enough?

Tudor-Locke suggests:

“Other approaches to pedometer-determined physical activity recommendations that are showing promise of health benefit and individual sustainability have been based on incremental improvements relative to baseline values.”

That is, you should try to embrace incremental improvements: Stand rather than sit; walk rather than stand; run rather than walk; and so on. A past study has shown two minutes of walking each hour can offset some of the health harms from sitting. It's a good place to start. The 10,000-step goal can be intimidating, so start smaller — aim for 5,000 steps and try to go farther each day.

Gretchen Rubin understands that there's no "one-size-fits-all" solution to creating healthy habits. But the best habits we create are the ones we don't have to think about.

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How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.

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A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.

Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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