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Why we should no longer use steps to measure our health

Counting steps for health not necessary

We were not always so obsessed with counting steps, tracking sleep, and measuring heart rate. In the late 2000s, during my high school years, one of the most popular PE classes was “walking.” Each class, we were given pedometers and headed to the back of the track, where we would sit and chat for the entire period. When class ended, we would shake the simple, low-tech, clip-on pedometers to register a few thousand “steps” before returning them. Should we really count steps to measure health? 

How it all started

The pedometers we had in my public school were not much different from what is considered the first popular pedometer. The Manpo-kei, made by the Japanese clock company Yamasa Clock in 1965, is often regarded as the “first” pedometer. Although step counters existed before, the Manpo-kei gained popularity. Over the next 50 years, the trend of tracking step counts fluctuated in the United States and other countries. However, when Fitbit released its first stylish and trendy pedometer in 2009, the tide turned, and step counting became a significant focus.

Today, most of us wear or carry pedometers everywhere we go, typically in the form of apps on our smartwatches or smartphones. However, despite their ubiquity, mounting evidence suggests that tracking steps is not the ultimate key to good health. In fact, there may be better ways to gauge well-being, including not tracking anything at all.

The concept of aiming for 10,000 steps a day gained popularity with the introduction of the Manpo-kei in Japan. The device was marketed as the “10,000 steps meter” because the Japanese character for “10,000” resembles a person walking. Fitbit adopted this idea when it released its first tracker in 2009, setting the default step goal at 10,000. This sparked a craze among users, turning wellness into a competitive sport. However, the connection between 10,000 steps and health benefits lacks solid scientific evidence.

It’s not the same anymore

Scientific studies have shown that you don’t necessarily need to reach 10,000 steps a day for health benefits. For example, a 2019 study published in JAMA found that women in their 70s who took just 4,400 steps a day reduced their overall mortality by 40% compared to those who took fewer steps. The additional benefits of increasing step count stopped at around 7,500 steps a day, not 10,000. Another meta-analysis published in The Lancet in 2022 also indicated that the benefits of steps on reducing overall mortality can occur at levels lower than the popular reference of 10,000 steps. Moreover, not all steps are equal. Different activities, such as jogging or running versus walking slowly or briskly, have varying effects on the body.

Fitbit’s popularity fueled the obsession with tracking health metrics, extending beyond steps to heart rate, sleep, and more. Modern health trackers offer a range of measurements and have become less obtrusive, such as the Oura ring and the WHOOP band. However, the evidence on whether these trackers actually improve health or athletic performance is mixed. Some studies suggest no added benefit, while others indicate improved motivation to exercise. But there is limited data to support the claim that tracking sleep or heart rate enhances overall health. In fact, it can sometimes worsen sleep quality.

There are better and more effective ways

Looking ahead, there might be better ways to measure health. Companies like InsideTracker aim to personalize blood tests by identifying optimized zones for various blood metrics. Rather than using a normal-to-abnormal scale, InsideTracker suggests measuring within these optimized zones to improve athletic performance and overall health. They also provide dietary advice to address deficiencies in vitamins or nutrients.

These developments signal a shift toward personalized health and medicine, based more on scientific data than simply reaching a specific step count. The underlying principle remains the same: if your vitamin D is low, you need to consistently take supplements, and if 4,400 steps a day reduce overall mortality, you need to walk that much daily. Attempting to cheat the system, like shaking your fitness tracker before heading to math class, never works.

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