Your wearable’s step goal isn’t based on science—it’s based on Japanese tradition and marketing

They probably hit their goals.
They probably hit their goals.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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How many steps should you walk in a day? Most step-tracking wearables, like Fitbits and Jawbones, recommend you hit at least 10,000 steps. The American Heart Association also recommends that figure, and the US National Institutes for Health considers that an “active” goal to reach. But is it enough? Probably not. New York Magazine reports that the 10,000 step figure is actually based on Japanese traditions—and marketing—from the 1960s.

A pedometer—or step tracker—was launched in Japan in 1965 by the Yamasa Corporation, with the slogan ”manpokei,” which literally translates to “10,000 step meter.” According to Theodore Bestor, a Japanese studies professor at Harvard, that number resonated with the Japanese. Bestor told the magazine, “It seems likely to me that the 10,000 steps goal was subsidiary to having a good-sounding name for marketing purposes.”

The problem, however, is that as the 10,000 number grew in popularity—it’s a nice round number that’s pretty large, but still achievable even for the barely active—so did our waistlines. The average person in the 2010s—Americans especially—is a lot more sedentary than the average Japanese person was 50 years ago. Our diets aren’t very similar either, Bestor points out: “By all accounts, life in Japan in the 1960s was less calorie rich, less animal fat, and much less bound up in cars.”

But not all wearables are bandying around this mythical 10,000 figure. The Apple Watch tracks goals based on its wearer’s height, weight, age, and how active you say you usually are. In fairness, both Fitbit and Jawbone’s step trackers let users set any step goal they’d like, but the default recommendation is 10,000 steps.

So what is the magic step goal number? Certainly, all those factors the Apple Watch takes into account matter, but ultimately, there isn’t a single answer. Cambridge professor Ulf Ekelund told New York Magazine to think of it this way: “Stand rather than sit, walk rather than stand, jog rather than walk, and run rather than jog.”