Does walking 10,000 steps a day really help in your weight loss efforts?

CNA – With the whole Chinese New Year (CNY) period slowly wrapping up, the strong desire to lose weight and get active usually kicks in right about now.

You’ve had your fill of pineapple tarts, your Fitbit’s been registering fewer than 3,000 steps a day for the past week and you have been guilty-reading all those news articles calculating how much exercise you need to do to burn off that single spring roll.

It does look like you have a lot of walking to do to shake off those post-CNY love handles – but who has the time to take 10,000 steps a day? That’s eight kilometres.

WHY 10,000 STEPS IN THE FIRST PLACE?

From manufacturers of wearable fitness trackers to advocates of Singapore’s National Steps Challenge, anyone who has an interest in helping you become healthier would have seeded this in your mind: aim for 10,000 steps a day.

That seems like a tough task. On average, Singaporeans take about 5,674 steps per day, according to a Stanford University study published in the science journal Nature in 2017. If you take fewer than 5,000 steps a day, you are considered sedentary. Which is not good.

“There is an association between sedentary behaviour such as prolonged sitting, and various health risks such as risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and death,” said an associate consultant with the Division of Endocrinology at National University Hospital Dr Amanda Lim. “Walking and moving around a little bit throughout the day may reduce these risks, especially if a person’s baseline activity level is sedentary.”

But where did “10,000 steps” come from specifically? It began as a marketing campaign for a pedometer shortly before the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Its name, Manpo-kei, comes from man for 10,000, po for steps and kei for measure in Japanese. The campaign encouraging users to walk 10,000 steps a day was so successful that the number has become the definitive goal on today’s fitness trackers and in wellness programmes.

SO, DOES IT REALLY WORK?

The virtues of the 10,000-step guideline were not examined in depth until Professor I-Min Lee from Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health did; her study was published in the Journal Of The American Medical Association in May 2019.

Professor Lee’s research, ranging from 2011 to 2015, was based on 16,741 women aged 62 to 101 – the same population she had worked with previously to study the relationship of physical activity and health in older women. During this period, the participants wore tracking devices during waking hours.

What the professor found was interesting. Instead of 10,000 steps – which, honestly, not many of us succeed in achieving – she discovered that participants who averaged 4,400 daily steps already had a 41 per cent reduction in mortality.

That percentage increased the more steps the women took, but up to a certain point. In fact, mortality rates levelled off at approximately 7,500 steps per day.

Living longer aside, aspiring to 7,500 steps rather than 10,000 steps is also a more attainable goal.

“This is good news as, on average, Singaporeans walk around 5,000 steps per day and an additional 2,500 steps daily is an achievable goal for most,” said an orthopaedic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital’s International Orthopaedic Clinic Dr Alan Cheung.

WHAT ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS?

When it comes to weight loss though, it is not as simple as walking X number of steps to burn off the calories of each kueh bangkit  you ate.

In fact, steps are not big contributors to weight loss; 10,000 steps would torch just about 300 to 500 calories, depending on the intensity of your walk, said associate consultant with Changi General Hospital’s Sport and Exercise Medicine Dr Mandy Zhang. To lose about half a kilo a week, you will need to have a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories a week, said Dr Zhang, ideally from both exercise and diet.

Instead, other factors such as your basal metabolic rate, thermic effect of food (the energy your body requires for digesting food) and, of course, exercise, play bigger roles, said Dr Lim. And by exercise, she is referring to the Health Promotion Board’s recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.

Interestingly, steps are not regarded as exercise but, “a component of energy expenditure called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT),” said Dr Lim. This includes standing up from a seated position or taking the stairs when the MRT escalators get too crowded. As long as it is an activity that requires some form of physical exertion, it is counted as NEAT.

“In general, the number of steps a person takes per day does not directly contribute to those 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, unless the individual is walking at a pace or at an incline that pushes the heart rate to the moderate intensity zone,” said Dr Lim.

And there is also your circadian rhythm – the internal clock that governs when you sleep and wake – to consider. Constantly messing up your sleep cycle can prevent your body from working efficiently and affect “digestion, metabolism and use of fat stores”, said Dr Zhang.

CAN YOU STILL MAKE THE 10,000-STEP GUIDELINE WORK?

That is not to say you should not bother trying to hit 10,000 steps a day.

It is an easy start for getting yourself out of a sedentary lifestyle, which, according to Dr Cheung, is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.

“Moreover, physical inactivity is estimated to be the main cause for around 25 per cent of breast and colon cancers, diabetes and ischaemic heart disease,” he said. “Worryingly, one in 10 Singaporeans has diabetes and Singapore has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world.”

If 10,000 steps in a day seem impossible, Dr Lim suggests increasing the target by 500 steps per day for one week. “Once the target becomes comfortable and easily achievable, you can increase the target further. Any increment in activity and reduction in sedentary time is beneficial,” she said.

“Also, people should remember that missing targets is only human. Don’t be too hard on yourself or give up entirely,” she said. “Healthy living is a cumulative and long-term process. Focus on the benefits and remind yourself that any improvement, no matter how small, is beneficial.”

Dr Lim also emphasised that “it is extremely difficult to lose weight through exercise alone without controlling diet,” so do not see the 10,000 steps as the be all and end all to your post-CNY weight-loss effort.