Getting in 10,000 steps per day has become a popular target for people looking to improve their health and fitness. But does hitting 20,000 steps provide even more benefits? Or is there a point of diminishing returns where more steps don’t necessarily mean better health? Let’s take a look at the evidence.
What counts as exercise?
First, it’s important to clarify that simply walking more steps does not automatically count as intentional exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines exercise as planned, structured physical activity done to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness. This includes activities like running, swimming, strength training, yoga, sports, etc.
Regular daily movement like hitting a step goal, while beneficial, does not necessarily meet the criteria for a dedicated exercise routine. Steps are considered a measure of incidental physical activity, while exercise involves focused effort to raise your heart rate and challenge your muscles and cardio endurance.
Benefits of 10,000 steps per day
The goal of getting at least 10,000 steps per day traces back to a decades-old marketing campaign launched in Japan to promote pedometers. The seemingly arbitrary number stuck and has become a popular daily target.
While the benefits peak at different step counts for different people, research suggests that getting in at least 10,000 steps daily provides these general health perks:
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Reduces risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases
- Helps control blood pressure
- Strengthens bones and joints
- Boosts balance and coordination
- Burns extra calories to aid weight management
- Elevates mood through release of feel-good endorphins
In addition, taking 10,000+ steps means you’re spending less time sitting, which is tied to poorer health outcomes and higher mortality risk.
How 20,000 steps stacks up
Doubling your daily steps to 20,000 provides additional benefits in several areas:
More calories burned
More steps = more calories torched. Someone weighing 150 pounds (68 kg) will burn around 500 extra calories hiking 20,000 steps instead of 10,000.
|Steps||Calories Burned (for 150 lb person)|
While calories burned will vary based on your weight, doubling your steps equals almost double the energy expenditure. This can really accelerate weight loss results.
Reduced risk of early death
One study published in JAMA Internal Medicine tracked nearly 17,000 older women and found that those averaging approximately 14,000 steps per day had a much lower risk of mortality compared to the least active women taking 4,000 steps. But the most active cohort taking 10,000 more steps (around 24,000) reduced their mortality risk even further by about half.
Decreased insulin resistance
Insulin resistance is a precursor to developing diabetes. Research shows that women who walked 20,000 steps or more per day for at least three days a week were at significantly lower risk of insulin resistance and prediabetes.
Lower blood pressure
A study had overweight women wear pedometers for 12 weeks while aiming for 10,000 or 12,500 steps daily. The women reaching 12,500 steps lowered their blood pressure by nearly twice as much as those taking 10,000 steps.
Healthier cholesterol levels
In addition to improving blood pressure, upping steps from 10,000 to 12,500 for 12 weeks resulted in an average 9% boost in HDL (good) cholesterol among the women in the study. Total cholesterol also decreased compared to non-exercisers.
Enhanced weight loss
While increasing exercise alone won’t cause weight loss, it pairs very effectively with diet changes. Research on postmenopausal women found taking more steps significantly enhanced weight loss from calorie restriction. Over 6 months, women taking 18,000+ steps daily lost 4 more pounds than those taking 12,000.
How 20K steps compares to intentional exercise
Getting 20,000+ steps is excellent from a general health standpoint. But it may not provide all the same benefits as following a structured exercise program a few days per week. Some advantages of focused exercise include:
- More variety and balance – An exercise plan incorporates different types of activity like strength training, cardio, flexibility, balance, etc. 20K steps doesn’t guarantee balanced fitness.
- Greater intensity – Exercise allows pushing yourself into high-intensity heart rate zones through sprints, hills, heavy weights, etc. Walking rarely hits maximum intensity.
- More calories burned per minute – Vigorous exercise incinerates more calories per minute than moderate walking. So focused exercise is generally more efficient.
- More muscle building stimulus – Strength training is key for building and maintaining metabolism-boosting muscle mass. Steps alone won’t optimize this.
- Bone strengthening – The impact from running, jumping, and weight-bearing exercise better stimulates bone density than just walking.
- Sport skill development – Working on your tennis backhand or golf swing requires specific technical practice beyond just steps.
That said, 20,000 steps could potentially replace some traditional cardio exercise depending on your goals. Brisk walking at 20K daily likely provides substantial aerobic and calorie-burning benefits on par with typical endurance exercise recommendations.
Is 20,000 steps per day realistic?
For most people living fairly sedentary modern lifestyles, tallying 20,000 steps per day would require a conscious effort and time commitment that may not be practical. Here’s a look at what it takes:
- It equates to walking around 9-10 miles per day for most people.
- It typically demands 60-90+ minutes of dedicated daily walking beyond your normal activity.
- It means taking walking breaks throughout your workday if you have an office job.
- It requires walking briskly and avoiding prolonged sedentary periods.
- It’s most achievable for active lifestyles or jobs that keep you on your feet.
Without an active job, reaching 20K likely means exercising solely by walking. This takes substantial time, along with access to safe walking routes, appropriate footwear, etc. Most people would struggle to fit in that volume of walking on top of other exercise, family, social, career and lifestyle demands.
Who can most benefit from 20,000 steps?
While 20,000 steps may be unrealistic or unnecessary for many, certain populations stand to benefit the most from this lofty target:
1. Sedentary adults
Very inactive adults are the least likely to get vigorous exercise in a gym environment. But walking has very low barriers to entry and gets you off the couch into an upright position. 20K gives sedentary people an achievable movement goal that vastly improves health.
For retirees and older adults with ample free time, upping step count toward 20,000 can provide structure and health benefits better than sitting throughout retirement. It also promotes mobility, balance and bone strength to prevent costly falls.
3. Walking/hiking enthusiasts
Some people simply love walking and hiking outdoors. If it’s your hobby, racking up 20,000+ steps is very reasonable through daily vigorous walks and hiking several times per week. Enjoying the journey helps hit this target.
4. Dog owners
People owning dogs requiring regular walks will easily accumulate steps. If you walk briskly and avoid driving to park visits, meeting a high step goal is very feasible with a dog’s activity needs.
Frequent travelers often log extra steps exploring new cities on foot. Bringing your pedometer on vacation and checking out sights by walking can allow tourists to hit 20,000 without much life disruption back home.
Risks of too many steps per day
For some populations, striving for such lofty step counts could potentially do more harm than good:
Risk of overtraining
Extremely high walking volumes day after day can overtax the body for sedentary people unaccustomed to such mileage. This could increase injury risk or prompt overtraining, signaling a need for more rest.
Downsides for obese individuals
Obese individuals, especially those 100+ pounds overweight, may find 20,000 steps unrealistic and discourage motivation. Lower, progressively increasing goals are often better starting points.
Problematic for people with disabilities/injuries
For those unable to walk unassisted due to disability or injury, tallying 20,000+ steps obviously isn’t advisable or feasible as an activity target.
Can sap too much time
People excessively preoccupied with hitting 20,000 daily steps may devote too much free time toward walking at the expense of work, school, family and social obligations. Moderation is key.
Not sustainable long-term
Extreme step counts often fuel quick progress but aren’t maintainable forever. Most can only uphold 20K steps consistently for short periods before scaling back to more reasonable 10-15K targets.
The bottom line
Tallying around 20,000 steps per day can clearly provide outstanding health and fitness benefits if achieved through brisk walking without overdoing it. This volume of movement assists with weight control, heart health, disease prevention, vitality, and longevity.
However, most adults living busy, modern lifestyles would struggle to fit in that much walking on top of other exercise, family, career, and social obligations. For many, 10-15k steps is a more realistic target providing most of 20k’s perks if combined with balanced diet and exercise habits.
Ultimately, choose a daily step target you can sustain consistently while progressing your movement. Any steps towards better health count as a fitness victory.