Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, drink at least eight glasses of water to stay hydrated, sleep eight hours each night, and walk 10,000 steps every day.
My guess is this list either made you feel super accomplished or completely defeated depending on how “good” or “bad” you’ve been lately.
And because motivation and behaviors tend to ebb and flow, reading this list at another time may find you feeling the exact opposite. That’s life.
And that’s where the trouble with magic numbers begins.
Setting aside that these benchmarks shouldn’t be tied to any sense of moral superiority or failing—health and character being completely unrelated—some have limited scientific basis to begin with.
While rigorous research has shown a direct association between sleep ranges and health outcomes (eight being within the optimal range for adults), the 10,000-step benchmark took a far less scientific route to world-wide popularity.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) pointed out that this number likely originated in a 1965 marketing campaign by a Japanese company looking to sell a new brand of pedometer roughly translated as “the 10,000-step meter.”
In an interview for The Atlantic, the lead researcher explains that it’s believed the product name was chosen because the Japanese character for “10,000” looks somewhat like a person walking.
While the exact origin of the 10,000-step goal is unclear, the JAMA article notes that there is limited information on how many daily steps are needed for health, indicating this magic number is far from scientifically proven.
That’s not to say it’s a bad goal.
If you have the comfortable use of your legs, no other health complications, live in a safe and walkable neighborhood, have the time and desire, and find 10,000 steps to be an accessible number to shoot for on a daily basis, then this goal is tailor made for you.
And you should definitely pursue it, for both health and enjoyment.
If, however, one or more of these factors raises a red flag, then those five digits can loom large and feel unattainable
While this was only one study focusing on older women—meaning more studies are needed to replicate and generalize its findings—the JAMA article showed that getting an average of just 4,400 steps per day was associated with lower mortality rates compared with those who averaged 2,700 steps per day.
Additional steps were associated with further declines in mortality rates up to 7,500 steps per day, beyond which rates actually leveled out—meaning health benefits can be seen well before 10,000 steps.
Encouraging findings for anyone who has looked at their fitness tracker at the end of a long day to find they’ve fallen somewhat short. And that’s if you choose to wear a fitness tracker at all.
Science says you’re doing just fine.