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This is the third article in our series devoted to exercise and how physical activity can add to the benefits of a whole food plant-based lifestyle.

As discussed in Part One and Part Two of our exercise series, daily physical activity is more important than hitting the gym.

And the more physical activity, the better.

But for many the idea of ‘more physical activity’ is a bit too vague–you prefer to have a super specific goal to work towards.

Which is precisely why this article focuses on the concept of 10,000 steps a day.

Ever heard of it?

Ever wondered if a daily goal of 10,000 steps could work for you?

Today we’re going to explore this concept in depth—its origins, its benefits and the best (easiest!) way you can integrate 10,000 steps into your daily life.

Where Does the 10,000 Step Concept Come From?

Contrary to popular belief, the 10,000 steps concept first emerged not as a scientific study but as a product for walking groups in Japan!

In the 1960s, ‘manpo-kei’ (Japanese pedometers) caught on fire. Sold mainly to Japanese walking enthusiasts, manpo-kei means Manpo meter and in English translates to ‘10,000 steps meter’.

Since then, studies have added evidence that taking 10,000 steps is indeed a solid goal for daily physical activity, associated with important health benefits including lower blood pressure, enhanced mood, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

One study reported a reduction in blood pressure for patients who walked at least 10,000 steps daily, regardless of walking intensity or duration.

Another study demonstrated that glucose tolerance was improved in overweight women who followed the 10,000 steps a day recommendation for 8 weeks.

Equally, research shows that too few steps can be bad for your health. Taking less than 5,000 steps a day can lead to a substantially higher prevalence of adverse cardiometabolic health indicators relative to those who take more steps.

How Many Steps Do You Currently Take (or Need)?

A sedentary person, who only leaves the couch (or chair) to prepare a snack, eat a meal or use the bathroom, probably registers about a maximum of 2,500 steps per day. On the other hand, someone who spends all day moving on their feet might register as much as 7,500 steps per day.

Here is an index of levels of physical activity according to you daily steps:

  • Sedentary adults: <5,000 steps
  • Low Activity: 5,000-7,499 steps
  • Somewhat active: 7,500-9,999 steps
  • Active: >10,000 steps
  • Highly Active: >12,500 steps

Why Our Kids Need More…

As you can see from our chart, 10,000 steps are not enough for younger children.

A recent review of the scientific literature suggests children ages 6-12 should be getting at least 12,000 steps per day. In Canada, guidelines recommend at least 13,000 steps per day for boys ages 6-11 and at least 11,000 steps per day for girls ages 6-11.

Despite the fact that kids need more physical activity, they do not appear to be getting it. For example, a Canadian Physical Activity Levels Among Youth (CANPLAY) study, which describes the physical activity of 5-19-year-olds using pedometer data from eight surveys between 2005 and 2014, shows an alarming shift towards a less active lifestyle across all age groups.

Variety Is the Spice of… Steps!

Given that the average American takes 3,000 to 5,000 steps a day, 10,000 steps per day might sound daunting to you.

But the good news is that getting to those 10,000 steps might be easier than you think.

In fact, you can accumulate your steps by doing a variety of activities that do not necessarily involve going on highly structured long walks every day.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has jumped on board, recommending children, adult and senior daily routines include a mix of activities to make up the required step count.

Examples of these activities include household chores, walking up stairs, playing with the kids or getting to places on foot or by bike.

Using this ‘mix and match’ approach, you will arrive at your 10,000 steps before you know it.

Just remember, the more physical activity you do, the more steps you accumulate.

How Do I Calculate the Amount of Steps I Take?

The next logical question is how do you calculate the number of steps you are taking?

While pedometers count steps for any activity that requires step-like movement, such as walking, running or climbing stairs, many other activities (i.e. low impact exercise or exercise that involves only the upper body) might not even register on a pedometer.

This is where a minutes-to-steps conversion chart can come in handy. You can use this online converter, look for your favorite activities and find out which numerical constant to use. Then all you do is multiply the number of minutes you spend on an activity by that numerical constant and you will get the number of steps.

For example, 15 minutes spent gardening, multiplied by the constant 80, equals about 1,200 steps.

Toss in some daily gardening, cleaning the house, walking to and from work and playing Frisbee with the kids and before you know it you have reached the 10,000 goal. Without ever stepping foot in a gym.

How Do I Begin?

If you have been sedentary for a while it is a good idea to ease into increasing your physical activity.

Consult with you physician to help you set specific, achievable goals to increase your steps gradually according to your current health.

The Mayo Clinic recommends starting out with short-term goals. Begin by measuring the number of steps you take in your average day, then shoot for an extra 1,000 steps daily for one week. Add 1,000 steps each week until you reach the 10,000 steps.

For more active individuals who want to increase their steps toward the 10,000 goal, try doubling your normal step count. If you are normally at 3,000 steps per day through ‘daily living’ types of activity (e.g. cleaning the house), add a 3,000 step walk or two 1,500 step walks to your day. That doubles your physical activity, which is a great start.

What if you are already at 10,000 steps per day? Great! You are an active person. But do not just stop there. Aim higher and increase your fitness level. Rather than increasing duration (which most of us do not have time for), increase your intensity by walking faster or doing some light jogging.

You Can Never Go Wrong With a Classic–Or the Buddy System…

And at the end of the day, you can never go wrong by sticking to the reliable classic–walking.

Walking improves mood, decreases stress and clears the mind. It is also a terrific thing to do after work since it allows you to de-stress before you settle into the evening.

And an excellent way to keep your walking habit constant is to find a walking buddy. You could even start a community walking group of your own to encourage everyone to reach their goals. (Remember the 10,000-step idea did originate with Japanese walking groups!)

So grab your walking shoes, your dust rag, your vacuum, leash up the dog — whatever it takes — and start stepping your way to a healthier, longer life.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.