The 10,000 daily steps mantra has become hugely popular, and is widely touted as the fitness goal we should all be aiming for, but where did it come from and does it work?

If you buy a wearable fitness tracker these days, such as a Fitbit or Jawbone, it will likely be set with a default goal of 10,000 steps daily, so widespread is the belief in this magic number now.

However, the 10,000 steps concept was actually born out of marketing, rather than scientific evidence, although subsequent health studies have established its value. Today, many major health organisations, including the National Heart Foundation of Australia, recommend it.

The idea arose in the 1960s in Japan when, in the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a Japanese company created one of the first pedometers and marketed it under the name Manpo-kei or ’10,000 step metre’. The idea caught on quickly—first with Japanese walking groups and then the world.

All steps are good steps

Many studies have documented the benefits of walking—it has been shown to improve mood, decrease stress, help control blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol and increase lung function.

In 2013, the UK medical journal The Lancet published research that found that adding just 2000 steps (about 20 minutes) a day to regular activity could cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 8 per cent among those at-risk, and that an extra 4000 more steps could match the gains obtained from taking a cholesterol-lowering drug.

According to the Australian Health Survey, Australian adults average 7,400 steps a day with fewer than one in five adults reaching 10,000 steps daily. The National Heart Foundation of Australia recommends we take 10,000 steps a day to improve our health and reduce the risk of disease, but recommends that if you are currently sedentary you should start slowly and build up.

Bottom line: While 10,000 steps may not be a magic bullet as such, it is a goal that is realistic for most people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and certainly enough exercise to achieve important health and fitness benefits.

Take it in your stride

Tips for reaching the 10K target:

  • Take the stairs instead of the lift or elevator.
  • Try ‘walk and talk’ meetings with your colleagues at work instead of sitting around yet another desk.
  • Fit in a quick, brisk walk in your lunch hour. Even 5-10 minutes is great!
  • Start walking to work, if possible; park your car further away from the office; or get off the train or bus a stop or two sooner.
  • Start walking with a friend and gradually increase the distance you walk together.
  • Go for a longer walk on the weekend, as well as the minimum 30-minutes each weekday.
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