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Walk 10,000 steps

Do you really need 10,000 steps a day?

If you're stuck at home during the COVID-19 response, do you need to walk 10,000 steps each day to be healthy? And where does that number come from?

“There was no initial study to show this to be a medical goal; instead, it came from a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s who called their product a ‘10,000 step meter,’” says David Poynter, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine and sports medicine physician. “It was a nice round number and was more than the average person was getting, so it stuck.”

As for the medical research, he notes that most studies have found getting approximately 5,000 steps a day to be beneficial, with little additional cardiovascular benefit after 7,000 to 8,000 steps, unless it’s at a moderate-vigorous intensity.

“There are benefits to additional steps at any intensity level over being sedentary, but we see diminishing returns if they are all at a low intensity,” he explains.

How many steps should you get a day?

Dr. Poynter still recommends that his patients get 10,000 steps each day, particularly if they are sedentary, as long as they don’t have underlying medical issues or injuries that prevent them from walking safely.

“I recommend it because, for a sedentary patient to get 10,000 steps a day, they have to intentionally be more physically active, which can only help them overall and get them closer to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity weekly,” he says. “This is something that they can easily monitor, and they don’t have to ‘exercise’ to do so.”

How much physical activity to get each week

The Department of Health and Human Services guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.

“This can be 30 minutes five days a week, 50 minutes three days a week, 22 minutes seven days a week; it doesn’t matter as long as it is 150 minutes weekly at a minimum,” says Dr. Poynter. “I prefer people to do some sort of physical activity most days as they are then more likely to make it a habit, but I leave that up to them.”

What is moderate-intensity exercise?

The key to improving your health is making sure your 150 minutes of physical activity falls into the moderate-intensity category.

“You can do this using your heart rate, and there are plenty of monitors and calculations people can find online,” he says. “I prefer the sing-talk test, also sometimes called the talk test. Basically, if while you are exercising, you can sing a short song – like happy birthday or the ABCs – then it is considered low-intensity because you aren’t pushing through your oxygen reserves. If you can’t sing because it makes you short of breath, but you can talk without getting too winded, that is moderate intensity. If you can only say two or three words before getting short of breath, that is high intensity.”

What counts as physical activity?

Dr. Poynter tells his patients to do whatever they want for physical activity, as long as they reach that moderate-intensity zone.

“It doesn’t matter if it is walking, biking, chasing the dog, playing basketball or doing yard work,” he says. “Just get active.”

What to do if you don’t get enough steps each day

If you don’t get anywhere near the 10,000 steps goal, that’s OK. Dr. Poynter recommends:

  • Finding a time that works for you. “I tell my patients that I don’t care how much activity it is, I want them doing something every day,” he says. “I recommend they find a time that works in their schedule and just do it. That can be first thing in the morning, on a lunch break or when they get home.”

  • Changing into workout gear. “Changing clothes to work out changes your mindset to one of doing activity specifically for your health, and we are trying to make that a habit,” he says.

  • Starting small. Begin with three to five minutes of activity a day at a light pace. He recommends this because “nobody can honestly say they don’t have three to five minutes, and pretty much everybody can walk at a light pace unless they have some type of disability that would prevent them from doing so.”

  • Gradually increasing your workout time and intensity. Many people then realize they have more time and gradually increase the amount of time they spend on physical activity. “Once you get up to 30 minutes a day, then I recommend increasing your intensity to a moderate level,” he says.

  • Finding an accountability partner. “Get active with your spouse or kids, find an online group, make a competition out of it; it doesn’t matter,” he says. “But doing it with other people makes it more fun and holds you accountable." During COVID-19, stick to virtual accountability unless you exercise with someone in your household.

The health benefits of physical activity

Dr. Poynter says the health benefits of exercise are too numerous to list.

“The main thing we focus on is cardiovascular and weight loss benefits of daily physical activity, but it also has significant effects on blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol and stress, even outside of any weight loss associated with it,” he says. “Regular physical activity also tends to give people more energy throughout the day once they are into a regular schedule of doing it.”

How much exercise do children need?

Exercise is a habit we should also encourage in children, Dr. Poynter says.

“Recent data suggests that if we don’t get kids into regular physical activity by the time they leave 5th grade, they are significantly less likely to be physically active as they grow up and into adulthood,” he says. “We used to think that if we got them before they got out of high school, we were OK, but that has proven to be incorrect.”

It is vital to their current and long-term health for kids to get and stay physically active year-round. The recommendation for ages 6 to 17 is a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity activity every single day.

“Unfortunately, very few do this since most schools have cut back on or even cut out physical education classes and recess,” he says. “We absolutely need to try to get our adults to exercise, but if we can get kids to do it regularly, they are less likely to need our interventions later in life.”

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