Does Counting Steps Help?
Scuba gear, flying machines, armored cars, and pedometers all have something in common, their inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci. The story is that he wanted to invent a way to track how far a soldier walked and was able to figure that out by attaching a lever to the soldier’s leg which counted how many times it went back and forth!
The next chapter of the story is found in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison written in the year 1788. In this letter, Jefferson explains his pedometer and how to use it. This one worked similarly to Da Vinci’s but with a string that went from the vest pocket and tied below the knee.
The first mechanical version was put to use when a Swiss watchmaker named Abraham-Louis Perrelet, designed one for Alexandre I, Tsar of Russia, to measure the distance his armies traveled. Perrelet had developed this mechanical concept shortly after inventing the self-winding pocket watch in the late 1700’s.
I hope you have enjoyed our brief history of the pedometer! But maybe you're wondering, “why the heck does this matter to me?” And the truth is that, well, I guess it doesn’t really matter.
You might have more relevant questions like: “what is the point of counting my steps?” or “Is 5,000 steps good enough?”. And to that I’d say, fair point – those do seem like more relevant questions to be asking! (Though I did enjoy learning about the invention of pedometers).
Skipping past a few other notes on its invention, I would like to touch on one more piece of history regarding how the pedometer was popularized and where we got this 10,000 steps thing… so hang with me just a little longer!
In the 1960s Japan was experiencing a rise in obesity within its nation. A scientist named Dr. Yorshiro Hatano had taken notice and decided to see if he could do something about it. He studied the habits and activity levels of many Japanese people and concluded that the average step count was 3,000 to 5,000 per day. His research stated that if everyone in Japan tried to get to 10,000 steps a day the country could reverse its obesity rise.
Dr. Hatano did more than just the research, he also designed a new and improved pedometer, calling it a Manpo-kei, translated to “10,000 step meter”, while also launching a massive marketing campaign to raise awareness of both the problem and his solution. That campaign was hugely successful thanks in large part to the 1964 Olympics that were hosted in Tokyo that summer.
Before he knew it, the world had caught on. And, to this day, we are still using that system to improve fitness all over the world. Oh, and the Fitbit came out in 2009 – that helped some too.
So where does that leave us today? And why is this still important? Let’s take some time to talk about what does and doesn’t matter when it comes to step counting.
Question 1: How many steps do I need to take each day? Maybe the most common question in the world of step counting exercise. Oof, talk about needing a layered answer! Well, a study published in the National Library of Medicine (NLoM) in 2011 says between 4,000 and 18,000. There you go, real helpful NLoM…
Here is a picture of a chart that kind of breaks down why they have such a big range.
But the real answer is…, you ready for this? It depends. You can’t get an exact step goal from static information; you need a recommendation that is specific to you! What are your goals? What is your current activity level? How old are you? How intense will your steps be?
I wasn’t really much more helpful than NLoM was I? Well let’s move on anyway. Maybe we will find what we’re looking for in another answer…
Question 2: What does walking even help with? This will be an easy one… EVERYTHING. Want me to list them out? Flexibility, weight loss, reduced heart disease, reduced diabetes risk, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, (you get the idea – literally reduce any disease), joint mobility, stop sugar cravings (I know… right?), improve immune system, improved digestive health and on and on.
There are several non-physiological benefits too; increase creativity, social engagement, low-cost, and a host of mental health improvements have been linked to walking more.
, it slows down the grim reaper. A research study was done between 2011 and 2015 studying walkers of different levels who wore a step counter around their waist for an average of 6 years each. The results were that (here are the crazy numbers) they identified a 32% decrease in the likelihood of death for everyone who walked at least 2,000 steps a day, and each increase of 1,000 daily steps resulted in around another 28% decrease in the likelihood of death. Long walks, short walks, fast walks, slow walks. It all makes a difference.
Question 3: Is just walking enough? Let’s look at the different areas of fitness to assess this one. Starting with aerobic fitness; since aerobic fitness is basically your body’s ability to move oxygen to all your organs and muscles and how good your body is at using the oxygen, we can confidently check this off.
How about flexibility and mobility? The most important thing you can do in this area is simply to move, and walking accomplishes that! Now, walking doesn’t apply resistance to every body part- so some of the gains are mild, such as upper body gains- but except for maybe swimming, walking is the most complete thing you are able to do.
Strength fitness is a little trickier, there is admittedly not a lot of strength to be gained by only walking. But to be fair that may be the least important thing on this list. And by introducing hills or stairs into your walk there are still some mild strength benefits!
Weight control is another “it depends” item on the long list of “it depends” items. However, without going into the specifics, the answer is yes, walking is certainly enough for weight control! It has been studied and proven many times over that it can be enough to shed some weight, and to maintain that weight. (Just remember that the consistency level, intensity level, and a few other things need to be considered as well).
Question 4: Why should I bother counting my steps? Oh right, we were talking about step counting… thanks for getting us back on track! There are a few clear ways that counting your steps can be helpful, while I am sure that there are many unique ways our different personalities and tendencies can make use of a pedometer (or a Fitbit that has even more features!), I think it falls mostly into three main buckets.
1. Helps you keep track. Keep track of your starting point, keep track of your daily progress, overall progress, how close you are to meeting a goal at any point. Imagine carrying a white board around all day and adding a tally with every single step you take (yeah… I don’t think so)! A pedometer is like that, but a tad more convenient.
2. Brings community. Have you ever heard a pair of co-workers talking about how many steps they have so far? That is because by each counting their steps they have built the sense that they are in it together! This is powerful; you can keep each other accountable, encourage each other (maybe compete with each other… I know there’s some of you competitive folks out there).
3. Assists in setting clear goals. Daily goals are huge, because the outward benefits of walking can be pretty slow to show themselves, having a daily goal to reach helps you stay motivated and get those regular hits of dopamine that we need to keep going. Not to mention it can keep track of longer goals and goal increases as we build.
I think I can make a good case for how counting steps can also encourage you, hold you accountable, and keep you consistent. But the three items I mentioned above are the primary reasons we should count our steps!
Fitness is easiest when it gloves together with our life and the activity we are already doing. What can be integrated easier than simply moving a little more in the environment we already spend our time in? More walking can always be added, and that’s what we suggest you do! Counting steps will help you take something that you may limiting without even thinking about (trying to find the closest parking spot, asking someone to grab you something if they are already going that way, loading up your arms with grocery bags so you only make one trip, etc.) and helps nudge us in the other direction where we are rewarded for finding ways to increase how much we walk!
We should all recognize that a little is better than nothing. So maybe you get to 10,000 steps, or maybe the goal is set at 2,000 for now. The important thing is that you move, and you do your best to take at least one more step than you did the day before.