dr. Michael Mosley: Ditch your fitness tracker – there’s a better way to get fit

Do you have an activity tracker? And find yourself looking at your wrist anxiously by the end of the day, realizing you haven’t hit your 10,000 steps yet, and start pacing around the house, waving your arms in a desperate attempt to hit that magical target ? That was where I started when I first got an activity tracker, until my wife, Clare, told me I was getting really annoying.

The 10,000 steps figure was originally the product of a 1960s marketing campaign in Japan. A company that liked to thrash its pedometers came up with a device they called a Manpo-Kei, which translates into “10,000 pedometer.”

Since then, many attempts have been made to 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 had to take, depending on your age. For adults age 60 or older (I’m 65), the risk of premature death decreased at 6,000 to 8,000 steps per day, and more steps provided no added benefit for longevity. Adults under 60 should aim for 8,000-10,000 steps.

This is pretty interesting, but to be honest I ditched my activity monitor to make sure I get a couple of brisk 20 minute walks a day. That’s because of a podcast I did about the benefits of a brisk early morning walk as part of my popular But one thing series, which you can find on BBC Sounds. It’s also partly because of an experiment I did with Prof Rob Copeland of Sheffield Hallam University.

The goal was to compare the benefits and convenience of 10,000 steps to something called “Active 10.” With Active 10 you don’t have to count steps, you aim for three brisk 10-minute walks a day.

© Christina Kallic

We gathered a small group of volunteers, fitted them with activity monitors, and then divided them into two groups. One group was asked to reach the goal of 10,000 steps, the other to do three sessions of Active 10, which equates to approximately 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 analyzed the data from the volunteers’ monitors, he found that the Active 10 group did 30 percent more “moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” than the 10,000-step group, even though they moved for less time. This is important because when you exercise briskly, you get the most health benefits.

Go to the NHS website where you can download a free app to get Active 10s into your day. It’s a good way to see how much brisk walking you’re doing and how you can do more.

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