If you’ve ever worn a Fitbit or other pedometer, you know the little confidence boost you feel when you hit 10,000 steps—your watch buzzes, gives you a congratulatory light show and leaves you feeling accomplished.
On the flip side, you probably also know the stress of not making it to 10,000. If this sounds like you, stop right now and read this truth: There is nothing magical about taking 10,000 steps. That big, round number we've all accepted as the gold standard in fitness was actually started as a 1960s marketing tool to sell pedometers in Japan. The Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company, a clock company, named its new pedometer product the "Manpo-kei," which translates to "10,000-step meter." While the number wasn’t based on any real scientific evidence, the meter was a hit and, over time, other pedometers ran—well, walked—with the 10,000-step number.
That doesn’t mean your more modern "Manpo-kei" is useless, though. Wearing a step tracker—and counting your steps—is good for your health and activity levels, and coaches like Jessica Smith like that clients wear them.
"If a tracker helps you move more it can be a helpful tool; but if it causes anxiety or frustration, it may not be worthwhile," says Smith, a certified trainer and the creator of the "Walk On" series of fitness videos and DVDs. "A daily step goal may help motivate some to get up and walk more often throughout their day (not just during their workout time), which is always a great thing."
Science backs them up, too: Even though the 10,000-step number was marketing, there is research to support counting your daily steps. In a study of 16,741 older women, those who averaged 4,400 steps or more had a significantly lower risk of death compared to those taking 2,700 or fewer steps per day. Those benefits continued to increase up to 7,500 steps per day, but—surprise—didn’t increase with more than that. A Japanese study of older people had similar results: Those who took more than 7,972 steps per day were less likely to die over the period studied than those who took fewer than 4,503 steps per day.
So there’s your new step goal, pedometer-wearer: 7,500 to 7,972 steps per day. But don’t stop there! There are many other benchmarks that will improve your entire life. Strive for these four other science-backed standards in your daily routine to reduce disease risk, get more active, and lower your risk of premature death.
Daily Goal: Take 2,000 steps in 20 minutes
"[Most step counters] don’t take intensity into account," says Michele Stanten, a walking coach and author of "The Walking Solution". "In general, most people could stand to use a little more intensity."
Many of the "how many steps" studies don’t measure this, either, but intensity matters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week to reduce disease risk. But regular, daily walking—to and from the door of the grocery store, or out to the mailbox and back—isn’t usually fast enough to raise the heart rate to "moderate" levels. So while it’s good that you’re active, those steps don’t "count" towards the CDC recommendations.
To get to "moderate" activity, you’ve got to increase intensity—that is to say, it's time to pick up the pace. In one review of 38 different studies, scientists determined that a pace of 100 steps per minute met the scientific criteria for "moderate" intensity. Do that for 20 minutes per day, and you’ll hit 2,000 steps, which means you've almost met the 150-minute threshold.
You may actually enjoy counting your steps each minute. "Some people enjoy that because their minds are always racing," says Stanten. "If you’re counting, you can’t be worrying about a fight you had or a project deadline." For others, active counting may not be as relaxing. Smith recommends using uptempo music or interval walking to increase intensity. In interval training, short bursts of more intense exercise are alternated with rest periods of easier intensity. To give this a try, walk hard for 50 steps or one minute, then slow back down for 100 steps or two minutes.
For competitive-minded clients, Stanten has found that a race against your former self can help increase your speed and intensity. After warming up for your walk, pick a starting position and walk for 15 to 20 minutes, marking the location you reach in that time, then walk back to your starting point at a comfortable pace. The next time you walk, try to get just a little farther in the same amount of time.
Daily Goal: Do 10 minutes of muscle-strengthening exercise
The CDC’s weekly recommendations for exercise don’t stop with moderate-intensity cardio. To get the full benefits, the organization also recommends performing strength training at least twice per week. Studies from other parts of the world back up the death-defying benefits of strength work, too. In a study of 80,000 Australian adults, scientists found that participation in any form of "strength-promoting exercise" was linked with a 23 percent reduction in all-cause mortality and a 31 percent decrease in the risk of death via cancer. More participation meant more benefits: Study subjects who did strength exercise for more than 66 minutes per week saw slightly more benefits.
You can beat that 66-minute mark with just 10 minutes of strength work per day. "Consistency of short workouts triumphs over inconsistent longer workouts," says Mike Whitfield, a trainer and creator of the Sets & Scriptures fitness app. "When I have a client that is struggling to stick to a routine, I shorten their workouts just to get some consistency going. When they can commit to just 10 minutes, their confidence goes up and they can build on that."
To maximize the amount of work done in shorter workouts, Whitfield likes to use movements that use lots of muscles at once, and organizes them into "density training" workouts. Utilizing compound movements that call on multiple muscles groups allows you to maximize your gains, while minimizing the amount of time you spend in the gym each day. In this type of workout, you’ll perform one set of each exercise before moving on to the next exercise, repeating all the moves as many times as you can in the time prescribed.
Daily Goal: Eat 3 or more cups of vegetables
As it turns out, mama was right about eating your veggies. In one study of more than 135,000 people, scientists found that people who ate three or four servings per day had the lowest rates of early mortality.
However, most of us don’t eat our veggies. In 2015, the CDC reported that just 9.3 percent of Americans met the daily recommendations for vegetables in our diets. Eating just two to three cups of daily vegetables has been linked with reduced risks of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Three cups isn’t a magic bullet that makes your whole diet "healthy," though, says Monica Auslander Moreno, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition and founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami. It is a great place to start, though. "Even one positive behavior change like that is significant, and benefits from eating more plants, even in the face of no other changes, is laudable."
If you’re not used to eating lots of vegetables, Moreno suggests starting with what you know: Make a list of vegetables you like or know how to prepare easily, and add those to your weekly grocery list. From there, Moreno says to add one daily serving to your vegetable intake each week. So if you’re not eating vegetables at all right now, start by adding one serving each day. In three weeks, you’ll be eating your recommended amount.
Daily Goal: Sleep for at least 7 hours
This one may be the most important of all. Getting too little sleep (or too much sleep) is associated with all kinds of nasty health outcomes, including diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory disorders, heart disease, obesity, and early death. We’re all busy and have lots of appointments and responsibilities straining our schedules, but if you want to be healthier, put sleep first.
"Sleep is the number one thing," says Martinez. The Austin-based coach says if she could choose between them getting enough sleep or getting in their training, she’d suggest they hit the sack. "You don’t want to over-train a stressed body. When you’re sleeping, you’re recuperating, you’re recovering. And when you do get the opportunity to train, you’ll be able to train better."
Whitfield agrees: "Sleep affects everything: your energy, willpower, temper, patience, cravings, and more," he says. "By getting enough sleep, you’ll find yourself more productive. If you’re more productive, you’ll have more time to strength train."
To help set your body and mind up for seven restful hours, Whitfield offers these four strategies to try for better quantity and quality of sleep:
- Go to bed at the same time every day. Yes, even weekends. When scientists studied 2,700 high school students, they found that sleeping in on the weekends basically gave them jet lag that affected their performance the following week.
- Don’t look at screens for an hour before bed. This one can be tough, but it makes a real difference. Seventy-one percent of Americans go to bed with their phones, and the blue light emitted from those black mirrors suppresses melatonin, a hormone that should increase as you go to sleep—meaning it could be keeping you up.
- No caffeine for eight hours before bed. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, caffeine has a half-life of three to five hours, so if you consume caffeine, only half of it is gone in that time. One study found that consuming caffeine six hours before bed reduced total sleep time by an hour, so try to stay caffeine-free after work if you can.
- Create a 30-minute pre-bedtime routine. Whether it’s reading, taking a shower or some other relaxing routine, Whitfield says this can "trigger" your body to realize it’s time to sleep, which helps you fall asleep faster.
While hitting step goals is a great way to encourage physical activity, health is multifaceted and should include many different goals. Nutrition, mental health and physical activity should all be part of your daily goals, so start by adding one of these and embrace the health!