When fitness trackers first appeared, suddenly people everywhere were aiming to reach 10,000 steps a day. That works out to about five miles of walking each day.

And while some people are successful at achieving that goal, others find it tough to keep up with day after day, leading them to feel unsuccessful and give up.

It can leave you wondering: Do you have to walk 10,000 steps a day for better health and fitness? Is there any evidence that 10,000 should be the default, and where did that come from?

Here’s the scoop: 10,000 steps is an arbitrary number. It dates back to the 1960s, when a Japanese company launched a new pedometer and called it the “10,000 steps meter.” With this marketing effort, it became popular in Japan to target 10,000 steps.

Fitness trackers can be helpful and motivating for people who are trying to get moving more, especially for those who sit most of the day. But how many steps do you really need?

How many steps make a difference?

With the popularity of 10,000 steps, researchers decided to find whether that amount actually results in a longer life.

2020 study of adults over age 40 found that a greater number of steps per day was significantly associated with lower all-cause mortality. Participants who took 8,000 steps per day, compared with 4,000 steps per day, had significantly lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

2019 study of older women found that as few as 4,400 steps per day was significantly related to lower mortality rates compared with 2,700 steps per day. However, with more steps per day, mortality rates progressively decreased before leveling at approximately 7,500 steps per day.

Research findings suggest that 7,500-8,000 steps per day result in a longer life, but that even around 4,000 is beneficial compared to lesser amounts.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be 10,000 steps. Even if you just add a little more movement to your day, it can make a difference.

If you’re not sure where to start, try setting a daily step goal that is doable. You can always work your way up to more. If you start with small goals, it’s easier to stick with so it can become a new habit. It’s estimated that 2,000 steps equals one mile. Can you do an extra 1 or 2,000 steps a day?

How much exercise do you need for good health?

The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes (that’s 2.5 hours) per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.

The minimum of 150 minutes a week is just 30 minutes a day, five days a week. And it doesn’t have to be done all at once. You can break this up into smaller segments throughout your day if that works better for you.

Fitness trackers estimate your step count, but they may not take into consideration all of your movement and exercise. For example, weightlifting, using gym machines, swimming, cycling and yoga may not register as steps but are great exercises. A well-rounded fitness program includes cardiorespiratory endurance, strength and flexibility work. If you’re working out regularly, step counts may be insignificant.

If we’re looking at the big picture, what’s more important than the number of steps taken is the amount of time someone exercises each day and the intensity.

Walking is one of the simplest and best exercises there is

If you’re not currently exercising regularly and you sit a lot, walking is one of the best things you can start doing for your body. Fitness trackers can remind you to get up and walk, and help you reach a goal.

Walking might be the perfect exercise to start out with. Walking is free, doesn’t require any equipment, and you can do it anywhere. And it’s great for your overall health! Walking helps prevent or improve type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. It makes your bones, muscles and joints stronger. It benefits brain health too – helping improve memory and thinking, reducing the risk for Alzheimer’s, and helping prevent or improve depression. It increases your energy and stamina and can help you sleep better, too.

Ways to get 1,000 more steps a day

It’s not hard to rack up extra steps when you find a way to work it into your day. Choose one of these ideas, or come up with your own.

  • Walk when on the phone
  • Take a lunchtime walk break
  • Grocery shop in person instead of online
  • Walk the dog
  • Get up earlier and walk before breakfast
  • Take an after-dinner walk
  • Walk with a friend
  • Do chores
  • Walk around your house during commercials
  • Make extra trips up and down stairs
  • Explore a park or nature trail
  • Take an online aerobics class
  • Do a workout video
  • Browse downtown shops
  • Visit a farmer’s market
  • Walk while listening to an audio book
  • Play outside with kids
  • Put on music and dance
  • Set an alarm on your phone or fitness tracker to remind you to walk

Remember, all physical activity counts as exercise. Find something you enjoy doing, and make the time to do it. Whether that’s walking a certain number of steps every day – or doing other forms of exercise – just get moving!