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If you pluck someone off the street, whether in New York or Wichita or Seattle or Sacramento, and ask them how many steps people should aim for per day in order to get enough physical activity, they’ll probably tell you 10,000. In an age in which pedometers are cheaper, more accurate, and more feature-rich than ever, this number has taken on almost mythical proportions — a lofty-sounding goal (in reality, it’s approximately five miles, and a reasonably active person can pull it off fairly easily) that separates the active-lifestyle haves from the slothful have-nots.

But is there any medical reason to embrace this number? Not really. That’s because the 10,000-steps-a-day recommendation has nothing to do with sedentary, fast-food-drenched circa-2015 America. Rather, the recommendation first popped up in a very different food and environment: 1960s Japan.

“It basically started around the Tokyo Olympics” in 1964, said Catrine Tudor-Locke, a professor who studies walking behavior at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Center. “A company over there created a man-po-kei, a pedometer. And man stands for ‘10,000,’ po stands for ‘step,’ and kei stands for ‘meter’ or ‘gauge.’

“Ten thousand, it turns out, “is a very auspicious number” in Japanese culture, said Theodore Bestor, a Harvard researcher of Japanese society and culture, in an email. “That is, it seems likely to me that the 10,000 steps goal was subsidiary to having a good-sounding name for marketing purposes.” Whatever the reason for the adoption of this particular number, “It resonated with people at the time, and they went man-po-kei-ing all over the place,” said Tudor-Locke.

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Research Details

  • Research Center: Pennington Biomedical Research Center
  • Featured NORC Member(s): Catrine Tudor-Locke, PhD, Professor of Nutrition

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