Almost a decade ago, if you’d asked someone how many steps one should walk per day, you probably would have been stared at and gotten a confused look. things have changed, however. Ask almost anyone today, lifters or non-lifters, how many steps one should walk per day and the most common answer you’d get is: 10,000 steps a day, everyone knows this. Have you ever wondered since when this became “common knowledge”? What do these 10,000 steps a day do for the body and why are they so special? Is there are science behind this claim?
Before we start delving a bit deeper here, we need to make one thing absolutely clear, which is: the more you walk, or the more you increase your physical activity during the day, the more positive health benefits you will experience. Multiple studies have shown that increasing walking offers a multitude of health benefits, such as improved cardiovascular health, mental health and many other factors which contribute to an improved quality of living.
What’s more, the American Heart Association has concluded that a short walk in the park can decrease the risk of getting high blood pressure, increased cholesterol levels and can prevent the likelihood of developing diabetes if done consistently over time.
The benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day (or close to 5 miles a day)
Even though everybody knows that it’s always a good idea to walk more, one of the main reasons urging people to move more, which is to lose weight/fat, is exactly the thing which can mislead people. It’s for this same reason that lots of fitness electronic gadgets have built their value as a tool to remind people that they need to lose weight.
The majority of these have decided on 10,000 steps as the default goal one needs to strive to lose fat. Some even went as far as deeming 10,000 as some sort of a “magical number”. When one stops to think for a moment, one cannot help but wonder what’s so special about this number? Can walking 10,000 steps a day trigger some drastic changes in one’s body composition and help with weight/fat loss?
Shedding the fat with walking
There may be several reasons why this number took hold in the minds of people in the fitness community and beyond. First of all, 10,000 is a psychologically satisfying number, it’s round and easy to remember. Second, in a kind of self-reinforcing cycle, it has benefited from becoming so popular and widely known that people automatically assume it’s a good benchmark to strive to for weight loss, otherwise, what’s all the fuss about?
If you want to lose fat/weight, you will need to burn more calories than you consume via your food. This is the basis of weight/fat loss and is known as “caloric deficit”. The general rule of thumb is that one pound of fat contains approximately 3,500 calories. So, if you are in a caloric deficit of 500 calories each day for 7 days, you would eat 3,500 calories less, which the exact amount needed to lose one pound per week.
It has been widely claimed that one is able to lose a pound of fat per week by walking 10,000 steps because that would be enough to burn 3,500 calories. However, this claim is a large over-generalization which can only be applied to a small minority of people, and unless you are carefully monitoring your caloric intake and expenditure, it most likely doesn’t apply to you. To understand this, it helps to understand the source of this claim. However, it is based on several not so accurate estimations, such as:
Any calculation of the number of calories you burn from running or walking is influenced by your weight. People with greater weight use more energy to move from one place to another than people with a smaller weight. The majority of rough estimates are around 100 calories burned per mile for a person weighing 180 lbs. If you’re heavier or lighter than this, you will burn more/ fewer calories while walking the same distance or the same number of steps.
Walking speed and distance
Even if you do weigh 180 lbs, the calories you will burn from walking will still depend on the speed and intensity of your walk. The average walking speed is around 3 miles an hour, and according to the Mayo Clinic, the number of calories you will burn largely depends on the speed of your walk. For a person that weights 160lbs, a slow 30-minute walk at 2 miles per hour will burn around 100 calories, but a faster walk at 3.5 miles an hour will increase the burn by around 50% or 160 calories.
You might ask why. It’s simple actually: the faster you walk the larger the distance you will cover in the same amount of time. Those who claim that you can burn 3,500 calories per week just by walking usually assume that you always walk at a faster pace to cover the necessary distance.
So, if we assume that you weigh 180lbs and walk at the required intensity, then using simple math, 100 calories burned times 5 miles equals 500 calories, which if you keep the same intensity for 7 days a week equals 3,500 calories.
If you change any of the aforementioned factors, the results can differ. And then there is another set of conditions, which are far more significant and could make a world of difference. You could spend the entire time trying to do walk 10,000 uselessly if you are not careful because when you’re trying to lose weight by running it is assumed that your weight is constant or stable, which means the number of calories in is the same as calories out.
You can’t out-exercise a bad diet
It goes without saying that walking more increases your overall physical activity level, which leads to a greater number of calories burned during the day. However, having no accurate information about your body’s energy balance in the first place could make walking 10,000 steps, 20,000 or even 30,000 a useless pursuit and may not be enough to trigger any drastic fat loss decrease or body composition changes, even if walking more steps means more calories burned.
As an example, let’s presume that you need 1,800 calories per day to maintain your current weight, but you consume around 2,300 calories per day. If we assume that walking 10,000 steps equals 500 calories burned, which as we already mentioned is less likely to occur, at the end of the day, you would reach a zero net calorie balance, which means that the 10,000 steps you’re walking will only help you maintain the current body weight and won’t make you lose any fast.
- 1,800 calories burned daily + 500 calories burned from walking 10,000 steps = 2,300 calories.
- 2,300 calories consumed from food. The net caloric balance = 0 (no changes in body weight).
But, let’s assume that you monitored your diet carefully and ate 1,800 calories per day. If we also assume that you did not exercise during this period, your weight would remain the same. Now, let’s say that you walked your 10,000 steps and you spent around 500 calories. That would bring your net caloric balance to 1,300, which is from the 500 calories spent from taking the 10,000 steps.
- 1,800 calories burned daily + 500 calories burned from walking 10,000 steps = 2,300 calories.
- 1,800 calories consumed from food. The net caloric balance (1,800-500) = 1,300 (changes in body weight occurs).
If you did this for seven days straight, in theory, you could realistically expect to lose one pound of fat per week, however there would be no way to find out if you can really expect such results without precisely calculating your Total Daily Energy expenditure (TDEE) and your Basal Metabolic Rate (MBR). There are lots of sources on the Internet about what the basal metabolic rate is and how calculating it can help you get into a caloric balance, but here are some quick instructions on how to do it yourself:
Measure your body composition parameters as well as your body fat percentage and lean muscle tissue percentage. Convert the body composition parameters into your basal metabolic rate. There are some body composition analysis devices that will offer this on the result sheet. If you don’t have one that does, you can use an online converter.
Multiply the BMR by 1.2. This will provide you with an approximate estimate of the number of calories your body requires to maintain its current weight, provided you aren’t doing any resistance training. The next thing you should do is start keeping track of all the calories in the food that you eat. There are lots of apps to help you do this, with the most popular being “My Fitness Pal”. Once you have kept track of your diet for several days and get a general idea of what your calorie intake is like, compare it to your total daily energy expenditure. If your TDEE is lower than your daily caloric intake, you are most likely gaining fat.
Depending on how big the difference between your caloric intake and your total daily energy expenditure, walking 10,000 steps might not be enough to trigger any decrease in your fat tissue. If you are already overeating, taking 10,000 steps may be just enough to prevent any additional weight gain, but if you are like the majority of people, it’s likely you don’t start a new training regimen and walk 10,000 just so that you can maintain your current weight, you want to lose weight. Plus, if every now and then you catch yourself eating more because of your increased activity which is a pretty common occurrence, this will also sabotage your progress.
In a manner of speaking, there’s no way you can walk away from your diet. If you plan on burning pounds of fat by walking 10,000 steps daily, unless you are already doing lots of things right, such as tracking your caloric intake, you’re in for a great deal of walking with minimal results.
A journey of 1000 miles begins with one step!
It goes without saying that there a lot of health benefits to increasing your overall physical activity with things like walking, even though they may not provide you with stellar results when it comes to weight/fat loss. However, it’s safe to say that anyone reading this could greatly benefit from getting their a*s off the couch and start walking a little more. If losing weight is your primary goal, it is of utmost importance that you thoroughly understand the entire weight loss process so that you are better able to set specific goals that will help you achieve it, which also entails incorporating plans like walking 10,000 steps a day.
Weight/fat loss happens when your body is in a state of caloric deficit. Most of the time, bringing “things into balance” is generally taken as a good thing. However, this doesn’t apply to calories. If your “calories in/out” ratio is not in balance, you cannot hope for a drastic change. You have got to unbalance this ratio in order for change to occur, and usually, the easiest way to do this is by increasing your resistance training level and reducing calories from food.
So, even though setting such a goal like walking 10,000 steps a day might sound like a strategy that could work for you and ultimately help you increase your overall physical activity before you put all your hopes in this endeavor, you need to take a minute to fully understand the path you’re taking. You could implement this in a way that the 10,000 steps could be just an integral part of a wider training regimen, or that you do these steps as a supplementary activity to swimming, running, biking or any other healthy activity which will increase energy expenditure.
Even the longest journey begins with the first step. You will need to make sure that each of these steps, from the first to the last is worth it.