Employee & Community Health

10,000 steps a day: What counts as exercise?

10/15/2018 by Sara Mansfield, MS

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We've all heard about it, people strive to reach it, but does walking 10,000 steps a day really count as exercise? The idea of 10,000 steps came from a marketing campaign for a walking club in Japan back in the 1960s. No matter how it started, we can't dispute the evidence that it's gotten more people to move and that moving more provides great health benefits. 

Ten thousand appears to be a reasonable amount of daily steps for healthy adults, and studies are beginning to document the benefits of reaching this goal. But do those steps count as exercise? You bet! Even walking two minutes out of every hour can significantly lower many disease risk factors. 

Want to take the first step toward those 10,000 steps? 

  • Start by tracking how many steps you currently take each day. There are a wide variety of fitness trackers from the fancy (like an Apple Watch complete with GPS) to the basic (like a pedometer). By establishing a baseline and gradually building on that number, you can set goals and measure your progress. 
  • Have a walking meeting or schedule your meeting in a location that requires a short walk. 
  • If you've been sitting for a while, stand up or take a quick walk, even if it's just throughout the house.
  • Park farther away from your destination. 
  • Walk around the block after dinner. 

The beauty of these steps is that they can fit into your day anytime, anyplace. That's the key to getting your "move" on. What we think of as exercise (sweaty gym visits in the right clothes) can be expanded to include activities of daily living — minus some modern conveniences. Consider your whole day as your "workout". 

Remember the acronym NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. NEAT describes the total calories your body is burning when you're moving throughout the day: 

  • 60% of calories are spent just keeping your body alive (heart pumping, brain thinking, organs working). 
  • 10% are used to eat and digest food. 
  • 30% can be devoted to movement. All movement counts!

Formal exercise is important, but exercise alone can't offset the amount of sitting we do during the day. Choosing to move throughout the day burns bonus calories and ultimately helps you get healthier. Try these ideas to get moving: 

  • Stand while you talk on the phone
  • Use a standing desk
  • Go "old school" with chores like vacuuming instead of using the Roomba or a manual clipper instead of an electric hedge trimmer
  • Play tag with your kids
  • Wash the windows
  • Weed the garden
  • Carry your groceries from the store and into your home
  • Dig out the hula hoop
  • Hear your favorite song? Dance!

So, what counts as exercise? Any and all movement. What you do is limited only by your imagination. Have fun!

Sara Mansfield, MS, is a Wellness Exercise Specialist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program in Rochester. Her interests include functional movement and behavioral modification to help others incorporate accessible, healthy behaviors into their lifestyle.