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Big health benefits from far fewer than 10k steps per day

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

A science-based tip today: even a little daily walking is shockingly good for you. 10,000 steps per day is not just unnecessary, it’s overkill for many people: the risk of overuse injuries isn’t worth the modest extra fitness you can squeeze out of more than about 5–7k/day.

The concept of “diminishing returns” needs more love in the world of fitness. The details…

A new study (Sheng et al, open access) shows the relationship between steps/day and all-cause mortality. The data boils down to two major points:

  1. Walking is generally amazing for your health.
  2. And you do not have to do a buttload of it.

Many people are now aware that just walking is a great form of exercise, and that exercise amazingly good “medicine.” Unfortunately, this awareness comes with an obnoxious myth: the idea that we all “should” walk 10,000 steps per day, now one of the most popular fitness goals there has ever been… probably partly just because we can count our steps with our gadgets. Fitness tracking may not be an entirely good thing.

The data from Sheng et al shows that you do not have to walk even close to 10,000 steps/day for it to be worth your while. The benefits are “non-linear”: you get a lot of benefit up front, a huge reduction in health hazards by the time you’ve hit 5K steps… at least double what you get out of the next 5K.

This is an inexact but correct-in-spirit rendering of the most important graph in Sheng et al. It shows the risk of being killed by any health problem dropping like a stone in people who take more steps per day… but it also, crucially, shows most of the risk reduction achieved long before you hit 10,000 steps per day.

I like how this was summarized by Dale Favier, Massage Therapist and writer:

“Where else in life can you just grab the lion’s share of the benefits of something in the first twenty minutes, and walk off with it? Almost nothing else works like that!”

Too much of a good thing?

Many people can’t walk 10,000 steps per day to begin with, due to disability and illness. But even many of those who can probably should not. Extra benefits are there for the keen walkers who push past 10, 12, 16k steps/day… but at what cost? The risk of long-term health issues declines ever more slowly, but the short-term risk of overuse injuries surges.

How much more plantar fasciitis is there in the world because of the 10k step myth? Shin pain? iliotibial band syndrome? Achilles tendinopathy? At some point you start to risk self-sabotage. That point probably comes sooner that you think — a mirror image of the good news about smaller doses of walking.

I married someone who has, at times, aspired to walk a whopping 20,000 steps per day. But my wife has been hurt by excessive walking at least annually for years now, always when she was pushing beyond 15K steps/day. Each time, her walking habit was badly damaged for a while — a net reduction in walking for the month, maybe much longer.


*shakes fist at Pokémon*