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Counting on 10,000 steps to add up to better health

A regimen of walking could put the body throough its paces. But that number need not be everyone's goal.

November 11, 2002|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Every journey may begin with a single step, but when it comes to fitness, does it end at 10,000? That's the question people are asking about the 10,000-steps-a-day walking program, a fitness regimen that is gaining momentum in the United States.

The basic theory is that walking 10,000 steps a day can improve one's health and fitness level. Adding more steps -- say 2,000 to 5,000 -- may also help shed pounds. But those numbers, say health professionals, are a guide, and the amount of walking should be based on one's fitness level and goals.

Either counting steps or wearing an inexpensive pedometer clipped to the waist is all that's needed to track one's progress, and walks can be broken up throughout the day, making this a relatively easy, gym-less way to get fit. As obesity levels in the United States escalate and health professionals continue to look for ways to get people moving, walking continues to rank high as a painless, sustainable program. And walking 10,000 steps is roughly equivalent to the 30 minutes of daily exercise, the recommended minimum.

The regimen, which began in Japan some 40 years ago, is still popular there--and its benefits were reinforced in 1993 by a Japanese researcher who found that people who walked an average of 10,000 steps a day were healthier than those who didn't. In the last few years, the program has moved across the Pacific to a welcoming public.

By counting steps, "Everyone can play and everyone can win," says Helen Thompson, program and research liaison at the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "If I tell someone who averages 3,000 steps a day to go up to 10,000, they'll give up right away. But if I tell them to increase it by 2,000 steps, they say, 'Yes, I can do that.' An additional 2,000 steps can be done in two 10-minute breaks. It burns an extra 75 to 100 calories, and that can prevent 1 to 3 pounds of weight that most Americans put on a year.

Tracking steps daily, says Ruth Ann Carpenter, associate director of the research division at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, "removes many of the roadblocks people have about exercising. It's a little reminder that instead of driving to the store, you can walk. It drives home the point that you can make your entire day more active, as opposed to going to the gym and then being sedentary 23.5 hours out of the day."

Before going for that 10,000-steps-a-day goal, health professionals recommend counting steps every day for a week, then averaging them at the end of the week. Opinions vary on how much and how fast to increase steps -- anywhere from 200 to 2,000 a week can be added -- but most recommend a gradual, week-to-week increase to get used to the added distance and not feel overwhelmed.

How to add those steps is another matter, especially in car-dependent cities such as Los Angeles. Choosing a more distant parking space, taking the stairs, using a bathroom on another floor, walking over to a colleague instead of using e-mail and walking the dog are some ways. Even returning grocery carts to the front of the store and pacing while talking on the phone can add steps.

But setting a daily goal, whether it's 8,000 steps or 12,000 steps, should be left up to the individual, says Catrine Tudor-Locke, assistant professor of health promotion in the department of exercise and wellness at Arizona State University.

"That 10,000 figure is probably reasonable for average younger and healthy adults 20 to 40," she says. "We did a cross-sectional study and found that people who took less than 5,000 steps a day were more likely to be obese, and people who took more than 9,000 steps a day were more likely to be normal weight. But there are obese people who walk 12,000 steps a day and normal-weight people who take 4,000 steps a day. And if someone is already taking 12,000 steps a day and wants to lose weight, the last thing you're going to tell them is take 10,000 steps a day."

Goals should be individualized, she says: "Basically we tell people to find where you are at the beginning, then increase by an amount that is going to be an improvement, and be sustainable. If someone wants to lose weight and they're increasing their steps by a substantial amount but the scale doesn't budge, look at another behavior, like eating."

"I think 10,000 steps is a great goal," says Mark Fenton, physical activity program manager at University of North Carolina's Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and author of "The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss, and Fitness" (Lyons Press, 2001). "For a person starting at 2,000 steps it may take them 10 or 12 weeks to get there, but that's a good, gradual increase. Most people have little sense of how far 10,000 steps is.... Some people think it's a mile, some people think it's 10 miles."

Tudor-Locke considers 10,000 steps to be roughly five miles, taking into account differences in strides. But how much ground 10,000 steps will cover depends on the individual. A mile is 5,280 feet long, and if your stride is just a foot long, you can walk 10,000 steps in less than two miles.

Not every step has to be a power step; most experts say one's regular pace is fine. Thompson suggests striving for a higher intensity for more calorie burning, and Fenton says quicker strides can also help build cardiovascular fitness.

"Now," says Carpenter, "if we could only get the equivalent of a pedometer for our diets."

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