Obsessed with Steps


These days, I do most of my runs wearing a Garmin GPS watch that tracks the duration and distance of my runs, as well as my stride cadence (steps per minute). I’m sure it gathers other data as well, but to me, distance, time, cadence are the main things.

Of course, it doesn’t require a fancy GPS watch to measure (or estimate) time and distance. I sometimes ditch the watch completely and run “naked” and I can’t say that those runs are any less enjoyable. But when it comes time to record the effort for posterity, it feels a little bit funny to be “making up” numbers rather than uploading actual data from a device.

As for cadence, I never record that data but, since my watch does it for me, I do take note of the numbers every time I upload a run. It’s a bit discouraging that for all my efforts over the years to develop a lighter, quicker cadence, I’m still mostly stuck at 160-164 steps per minute, a rate that’s exceeded only when I race.

Anyway, the question of why I can’t move my legs faster is a topic for another day. What I wanted to write about, instead, is the (to me) strange obsession that the fitness industry has with the total number of steps that a person takes in the course of a day.

My Garmin is not an “Activity Tracker,” as the market currently defines it. It doesn’t measure heart rate or gather other bio-data, and it doesn’t directly measure steps. And even if it did, since I wear it only when I’m out for a run, it would leave me untracked and unmeasured for 95% of the time. As a consequence, although I can calculate that my 40-minute run consisted of approximately 6400 steps averaging approximately 1.35m per step, I have no idea how many steps I take over a full 24-hour period.

Many activity/fitness trackers base their programs and marketing on the notion that everyone should aim for a universal minimum number of steps per day. Although I don’t own one of these devices, I know that they are set up to encourage daily and weekly goals for steps, and couch everything as a challenge. Sometimes it’s a group challenge, with teams of users competing to see which team can record the greatest number of steps over a week or a month. At my former company, there was a big effort to sign up employees to wear activity trackers and compete with each other for rewards, all based on the number of steps recorded.

I was completely uninterested in all of that, and never felt the slightest urge to purchase a FitBit or similar device, or participate in group challenges. That might seem strange since I’m someone who likes to collect and analyze data and I like competition.

Why was I was indifferent, even hostile to the idea of FitBit-style step challenges? I think it’s because I questioned the fundamental assumption that measuring steps was a meaningful way of measuring health, let alone a way of measuring something more specialized, like training. I thought of this recently after encountering articles that provided two somewhat opposing perspectives on the “steps” question.

The first was a recent article by Gretchen Reynolds for the New York Times ‘Well’ Blog. In the article, “Should 15,000 Steps a Day Be Our New Exercise Target?” Reynolds reviews a recent study of 111 Glasgow postal workers and writes that the study “…suggests that [the target of 10,000 steps per day] could be too conservative and that, to best protect our hearts, many of us might want to start moving quite a bit more.

Since it’s highly unlikely that Ms. Reynolds or the New York Times will be in the least bothered by what I write, I’ll just come right out and say that I think the article is pretty dumb. Specifically, I find it it’s dumb in two ways, and its worth distinguishing them:

  • It’s dumb because it over-interprets the results of one small study that can’t account for all factors affecting something as complicated a health outcomes. Thus, it fails to persuade me that there is a causal link between more steps and better health.
  • Using number of steps as a proxy for overall quality of physical activity seems to me far too simplistic.

If you’re with me so far, you might be asking yourself, “So, where did the target of 10,000 steps every day come from, anyway?” I’m glad you asked…

In a March 7th article for MultiBriefs: Exclusive, a website providing industry-specific news briefs, author Noelle Talmon raises the question of whether fitness trackers are effective in helping people achieve weight-loss targets (“Are fitness trackers doing more harm than good?“). In the article, she discusses a 2016 study that looked at whether fitness trackers helped participants in weight-loss programs that also included nutrition counseling and behavioral modification. Again, I wouldn’t read too much into a single study, but there was scant evidence that fitness trackers generally, and step-counters specifically, helped participants achieve their goals. In the study, those who were given the fitness trackers actually lost less weight, on average, than those who were not given the devices.

Interestingly, the article mentions that the original concept/recommendation for 10,000 steps per day was popularized in Japan in the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I did some searching and found a 2015 article for BBC Magazine that provided more detail, including the information that in the early 1960s one Japanese company developed and sold a device called a “manpo-kei,” or “ten-thousand step meter,” and taking 10,000 steps became a kind of slogan, the Japanese equivalent of “Just Do It.” So 10,000 steps originated as marketing, not science.

The BBC article (Do you really need to take 10,000 steps a day to keep fit?) is full of good, common sense observations about fitness trackers and arbitrary numbers of steps. It’s kind of obvious that not all steps are equal, that plenty of healthy activity does not involve steps at all (swimming, for example), etc. So people should not get too hung up on 10,000 steps or 5,000 steps or 15,000 steps to the point that it becomes the single thing taking all of our attention.

On the other hand, I’m sure that for a lot of people having that nice round number and a device that offers daily congratulations when they reach is a source of motivation, so what’s wrong with it?

As someone who is clearly not the target market for such devices, I think there’s actually a good reason not to become obsessed with step counts. Eventually, the motivation of hitting 10,000 steps (or any arbitrary target) fades. Eventually, meeting the daily goal becomes stale and meaningless, and then it loses it’s motivational benefits. I believe that eventually, for a good habit of physical activity to become a lifestyle, most people need to find a more sustaining motivation and a deeper sense of achievement. That might take many forms: the camaraderie of running with others on miserable days when you’d never get out by yourself, the pride of completing a half marathon, etc.

So it seems to me that asking whether 15,000 steps is better than 10,000 steps is entirely the wrong question. FitBits and similar devices aren’t going away any time soon, and maybe they will help some people become more healthy, but I believe that ultimately it will be the quality of the steps, and who you take them with, that matters.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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