Dr Michael Mosley: Ditch your fitness tracker – there's a better way to get fit
Stop chasing a 10,000-step target – Active 10 is an easier, more effective way to get fit.
Do you own an activity tracker? And do you find yourself, towards the end of the day, anxiously looking at your wrist, realising you haven’t hit your 10,000 steps, and start pacing around the house, swinging your arms in a desperate attempt to hit that magical target? That was what I began doing when I first got an activity tracker, until my wife, Clare, told me that I was becoming really annoying.
The 10,000 steps figure was originally the product of a 1960s marketing campaign in Japan. A company, keen to flog its pedometers, came up with a device they called a Manpo-Kei, which translates into ‘10,000 steps meter’.
Since then, there have been many attempts to try and arrive at a scientifically based figure for the number of steps you need to take to achieve a long and healthy life. One of the most recent attempts was published in The Lancet in March 2022. It was a meta-analysis of 15 international cohort studies, involving more than 50,000 people from four continents.
What they found was the number of steps you needed to take depended on your age. For adults aged 60 or older (I am 65), the risk of premature death levelled off at 6,000 to 8,000 steps a day, and doing more steps provided no additional benefit for longevity. Adults under 60 needed to aim for 8,000-10,000 steps.
This is kind of interesting, but to be honest I have ditched my activity monitor in favour of ensuring I get a couple of brisk 20-minute walks a day. That’s because of a podcast I did on the benefits of doing a brisk early morning walk, as part of my popular Just One Thing series, which you can find on BBC Sounds. It’s also partly because of an experiment I did with Prof Rob Copeland from Sheffield Hallam University.
The goal was to compare the benefits and ease of doing 10,000 steps against something called ‘Active 10’. With Active 10 you don’t need to count steps, you aim to do three brisk 10-minute walks a day.
We got a small group of volunteers together, fitted them with activity monitors and then divided them into two groups. One group was asked to hit the 10,000-step target, the other to do three sessions of Active 10, which adds up to around 3,000 steps a day. We asked them to do this for a week. The group asked to do 10,000 steps struggled, while the Active 10 group said they found it relatively easy.
When Copeland analysed the data from the volunteers’ monitors, he found that the Active 10 group had done 30 per cent more ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ than the 10,000-steps group, even though they moved for less time. This is important, because it’s when you are moving briskly that you get the most health benefits.
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To start getting Active 10s in your day, go to the NHS website where you can download a free app. It is a good way to see how much brisk walking you’re doing, and how to do more.
- This article first appeared in issue 376 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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