How many steps a day do you need?

I spend most of my days in a sedentary fashion, seated at the computer or reading. This is not good for one’s health generally but sitting for long times especially runs the risk of deep vein thrombosis.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot (thrombus) forms in one or more of the deep veins in your body, usually in your legs. Deep vein thrombosis can cause leg pain or swelling, but also can occur with no symptoms.

Deep vein thrombosis can be very serious because blood clots in your veins can break loose, travel through your bloodstream and lodge in your lungs, blocking blood flow (pulmonary embolism).

The article lists many risk factors to be aware of but these two were relevant to me.

Age. Being older than 60 increases your risk of DVT, though it can occur at any age.

Sitting for long periods of time, such as when driving or flying. When your legs remain still for hours, your calf muscles don’t contract, which normally helps blood circulate. Blood clots can form in the calves of your legs if your calf muscles don’t move for long periods.

When I was living in Cleveland I did not get any exercise at all but now that I am in Monterey where the weather is nice every day and there are places to walk around in my housing complex, I have started going for a 25-minute walk once a day. But is that enough exercise?

Recently I got an iPhone7 as a hand-me-down from my daughter (this has always been the way that I get free phone upgrades, when she upgrades to a new model) and it has a pedometer so I decided to see how many steps a day I took with my normal schedule. It turned out to be around 3,500, and that includes about 2,500 just from the walk. The average American walks about 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, or roughly 1.5 to 2 miles, so I was about average.

But this is far below the figure of 10,000 per day that one hears bandied about that supposedly should be the goal. I became curious as to where that number came from and whether it had any validity. After all, we know how some health folklore, such as needing to drink eight glasses of water a day, turns out to have no basis at all. According to I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, that step number does not have any scientific basis either and was a product of marketing. She is the lead author of a new study that found that even 4,400 steps a day produces health benefits for women.

Previous studies have shown that when it comes to physical activity, “some is good, more is better,” but there’s little data on steps and health, particularly long-term health outcomes. I knew this was a critical gap in knowledge, since so many people monitor their step counts. But 4,400 steps per day is a very modest number of steps.

[The goal of 10,000 steps per day] likely originated as a marketing tool. In 1965, the Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company in Japan sold a pedometer called “Manpo-kei,” [which roughly translates to] “ten thousand steps meter” in Japanese. But, for many older people especially, 10,000 steps per day can be a very daunting goal. That’s why we wanted to investigate whether this number was necessary to lower mortality rates.

If you can get to 10,000 steps per day, that’s fantastic, and I certainly would not dissuade you from that goal. For those who are inactive, though, that might not be achievable. Most people average 2,500 steps per day just doing normal activities, like going to the bathroom, walking around the office and getting the mail, so adding 2,000 steps per day more to your usual routine is very doable.

She suggests simple things you can do each day that will increase your step count considerably but almost imperceptibly. This article has more recommendations.

I like it when things can be quantified because that enables me to set targets and see if I have met them. Having the pedometer has encouraged me to become less sedentary by setting achievable daily goals. When trying to adopt a new habit, I have found it better to set modest realistic goals that are not onerous because then one has a better chance of sticking to it. You can slowly raise the bar if you so desire. I read this article that says that regularly getting up and walking around makes people more productive, so I decided to try it. I set an alarm to go off every hour and when it does, I get up and walk around the apartment for about three minutes, which is an easy schedule to maintain, before sitting back at my desk. I find that it does help to renew energy to concentrate on the task at hand.

With my new routine, I end up doing about 7,000 steps a day, and that is going to be my new routine because it seems attainable without much effort.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Getting a dog is an excellent way to increase your daily steps. Plus, they enjoy it so much!
    If that doesn’t fit your lifestyle, though, I also recommend headphones and podcasts or audiobooks.

  2. anat says

    Well, your new routine may be very good for you: Walking an extra two minutes each hour may offset hazards of sitting too long. Also see: An hour of moderate exercise a day enough to counter health risks from prolonged sitting.

    Prior to the pandemic I commuted by bus. This meant I walked for about a mile from home to the bus stop, then about half a mile from bus stop to work, walked up the stairs. Then the reverse on my way home. Just my commute got me some 6000 steps, to which I added walking at work between desk and lab bench and various meeting rooms and what not, making 10000 steps a day easily achievable. Nowadays I drive, so I make a point of going on a walk either before or after work. I figured out several 6000 step routes, as well as 8000 and 9000 step routes, some of which are entirely in my neighborhood (so better for days when I can’t trust the weather and need to be prepared to cut my walk short to avoid getting soaked).

    My current goal is to increase the intensity of these walks (or actually increase the part of each walk that I walk more intensely, I always start out intensely, just forget to keep it up) as in the past it had the effect of raising my HDL levels (my genetics predict lower than average HDL, without exercise my levels are low) and also because Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    I get my extra steps by popping outside for a ciggy every hour or so. 😉

    I wonder whether workouts on my (semi-recumbent) stationary bike count as sitting. I’m going with ‘no’.

  4. says

    My step counter for today is shy of 6.000, which I’ll probably reach by tonight. No special exercise, just work. By now i also have the lungs of a demigod, as I keep running around in an N95 under a protective cloth mask and can by now quickly walk up two flights of stairs without being out of breath at the top…

  5. says

    I used to walk a lot more than I do now, but still, I have to walk a flight of stairs every hour or so daily since I live on the second floor and the restroom is on the first one.
    When I was working, I usually walked in circles around the measuring device between changing samples. I hated sitting and waiting for the device to finish. I am sure I made more than 6000 steps daily with ease. Now that I am working at home, I am not so sure. But I definitively cannot sit for longer than an hour or so before I have to stand up and stretch my legs a little.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    What the explanation about Japanese marketing leaves out is crucial way in which Japanese differs from English.

    English has a single simple word for the first four powers of ten: one, ten, hundred, thousand. There is no commonly used single word for the next two powers (10,000 and 100,000), then you get to “million” and only get a new word every three powers from then on.

    Japanese differs slightly in that it has a single syllable word “man” that means “ten thousand”. If it didn’t have that feature, the phrase “ten thousand steps meter” would be as awkward in Japanese as it is in English, and they’d probably have called it something else, and the myth of the mysterious significance of 10,000 steps would never have started.

    English does in fact have a single word that can (and used to) mean “ten thousand” -- “myriad”, from the Greek μυριάς, but only linguistic pedants use it in that sense nowadays.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    The pedant in me requires me to add that you get a new word every three powers only if you’re a Yank. If you’re using the British system you get a word for 10^6 (million), a word for 10^9 (milliard), a word for 10^12 (billion), NO word for 10^15, and a word for 10^18 (trillion), no word for 10^21, and so on.

    Mentioning these numbers reminds me of a game that very briefly obsessed me a few years ago: Universal Paperclips. If you’ve never played it, set aside a day and get stuck in. It appears at first sight to be one of those idle/clicker games with no point to it, but it is in fact a deep, contemplative science fiction tale told through the medium of ever-increasing numbers, and a meditation on and a warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence. By the time you finish it (and you will finish it in a day if you pay attention) you’ll come to regard a quadrillion as really quite a small number. Go here to play:
    (This game also introduced me to Tonto’s Expanding Headband. Google that, too. You’re welcome.)

  8. Suren Fernando says

    The goal of the study of Professor Lin and her colleagues was to determine whether an increased number of steps per day was associated with lower mortality rates among older women. One of their main findings was that the benefits leveled off at approximately 7,500 steps per day. However, the study did not not look into issues involving quality of life. One would hope that Lee and her colleagues will have a follow-up study that focuses on more than” all-cause mortality”.

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