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Do we really need to take 10,000 steps a day? UAE-based cardiologist weighs in

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Many smartphones and wearable fitness devices set a standard target for users of all ages and health conditions of 10,000 steps per day, but experts have noted that it may not be necessary to reach this relatively high number in order to gain the health benefits from increased physical activity.

Lifestyle choices, heart health levels, habits, the nature of their work, or even pandemic-spurred lockdowns forcing people to stay at home, can all make hitting the 10,000 step mark much harder, leading to fatigue and a failure to hit personal physical goals.

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Dr. Ali Mohamed Sayed, Cardiology consultant at Abu Dhabi-based Bareen International Hospital in the United Arab Emirates told Al Arabiya English that while a target of 5,000 to 7,000 steps a day is sufficient for most people, “10,000 steps a day will do wonders for the body.”

“We need to exercise for 20 to 30 minutes a day to ensure good health and reduce the risk of heart conditions such as high blood pressure, artery diseases, angina, stroke or heart attack,” he said.

“Those [20 to 30] minutes could be walking or jogging steps. But to be effective, it should be uninterrupted,” he added.

A woman exercises in a gym. (Unsplash, Dylan Nolte)
A woman exercises in a gym. (Unsplash, Dylan Nolte)

Recent studies have also shown that lower goals than 10,000 steps can also be extremely beneficial. A 2019 study revealed that women in their 70s who were able to manage an average of 4,400 steps a day were at a lower risk of premature death, by around 40 percent, as opposed to women who walked more than 5,000 steps a day. The research also found, however, that the benefits from walking further plateaued at 7,500 steps.

Another study, conducted in 2020 which evaluated 5,000 middle-aged men and women of different ethnicities, also found that significant positive health outcomes came much earlier than the 10,000 step mark. The research compared the risks of heart disease in those who accumulated 8,000 and 4,000 steps a day on average, concluding that the former were half as likely to die prematurely from heart disease.

The 10,000 step goal is a particularly hard target for those who lead sedentary lifestyles or lead office jobs that require them to be seated at a desk all day.

“It is recommended that those who work office jobs or lead sedentary lifestyles do the fully 30 minutes of exercise per day,” advised Dr. Sayed.

A group of women jogging. (Unsplash, Fitsum Admasu)
A group of women jogging. (Unsplash, Fitsum Admasu)

“Cardiovascular exercise is the best for protection from heart disease especially in high-risk people like diabetics, hypertensives, smokers and those with high cholesterol and triglycerides levels in their blood,” he said, adding that cardio exercise provides us with lots of benefits beyond avoiding heart disease.

“It decreases stress, depression, fatigue and overall mood distress,” he explained. “This was proven when one study looked at the effects of 10,000 steps a day on physical and mental health in overweight participants. When we exercise, the body releases endorphins. These endorphins lower our perception of pain. Endorphins also boost our positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.”

10,000 steps based on advertising, not science

The idea that taking 10,000 steps a day is optimal came from a catchy Japanese advertisement, Harvard paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman, an expert in the evolution of exercise, stated in his book ‘Exercised’.

A man wearing a wearable watch to track fitness. (Unsplash, Luke Chesser)
A man wearing a wearable watch to track fitness. (Unsplash, Luke Chesser)

The Japanese 10,000-step meter, also known as the Manpo-kei, was actually invented in the 1960s by a Japanese firm that chose the name because it sounded good, Lieberman’s book revealed. The product worked and the concept became so popular that it somehow became a metric for health across the world.

Achieving 10,000 steps a day, the equivalent of about five miles in distance, does come with some perks, Lieberman told online news media Insider, adding that it is a convenient number for people to remember.

In fact, distances in ancient Rome were measured in steps and the word “mile” derives from the Latin phrase “mila passum” which translates to 1,000 paces, around 2,000 steps, UK-based online media The Conversation reported.

Assuming that the average person can walk around 100 steps per minute, means that it would take just under 30 minutes to walk a mile. To reach the 10,000 step goal, a person would need to walk around four to five miles a day, accounting for two hours of activity on average, The Conversation reported.

Research on the matter suggests that moving more and staying active will benefit one’s health, whether the magic 10,000 steps are achieved or not.

“It is recommended to have a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. This equates to 30 minutes daily for at least five days. But continuity is a very important factor that will lead to desired results,” said Dr. Sayed.

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