What Walking 10,000 Steps Does (and doesn’t) Do For You

April 27, 2016

10 years ago, if you had asked someone about how many steps people were supposed to get a day, you probably would have gotten a blank stare.

But ask anyone today - whether they exercise or not - how many steps people should be getting a day and you’ll likely get, “10,000, of course. Everyone knows that."

But have you ever wondered why? What does taking 10,000 steps do for your body anyway? Is there really a point?

Before we answer this in more detail, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Walking more – or increasing your activity throughout the day – absolutely has positive health benefits.  A 2010 study has shown that walking more has a whole host of positive health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, personal growth, and many other variables that contribute towards healthy living.

Additionally, the American Heart Association notes that a brisk walk can lower risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes if performed and maintained over time.

While there’s no doubt that it’s a good idea to walk more, the main reason driving people to move more - to lose weight/body fat - is where people can be misled.  It's for this reason that a number of fitness wearables have built their entire value as being a vehicle that drives people to lose weight. Many of these have honed in on 10,000 steps as being the default goal that causes fat loss; some have even gone as far as to call 10,000 steps the “magical number.”

But how magical is 10,000 steps? Can taking 10,000 steps a day cause meaningful changes in your body composition and help you lose body fat? Let’s find out.

Walking Away From Fat

There are a couple likely reasons why taking 10,000 steps has rooted so firmly in our minds. One is that 10,000 is a nice, round, easy-to-remember number. Another is that 10,000 steps has benefited from being so popular; its so widely known that people assume it must be a good goal for fat loss, otherwise, why all the buzz? 

In order to achieve fat loss, you need to burn more calories than you get from your food.  That’s called a caloric deficit.  A general rule of thumb is that a pound of fat contains around 3,500 calories, and the logic goes if you create a caloric deficit of 500 calories over a 7-day period, that’s equal to 3,500 calories: good for a pound of weight loss per week.

It’s been claimed that individuals may be able to lose a pound of fat a week just by taking 10,000 steps because of the potential to burn 3,500 calories from walking.  Unfortunately, this claim is a large over-generalization that applies to precious few people, and - unless you’re keeping careful watch of your calories in/out - likely doesn’t apply to you.

To understand why, it’s helpful to understand where the claim comes from.  Unfortunately, it’s based on several rough estimations.   For example,

  • Weight

Any estimation of how many calories you burn from walking or running is dependent on how heavy you are.  Heavier people use more energy to move themselves than lighter people.  Most rough estimates revolve around 100 calories burned per mile for a 180-pound person. If you’re lighter or heavier, you will burn less/more calories while taking the same number of steps or walking the same distance.

  • Walking Speed and Distance

Even if you happen to be a 180-pound person, the calories you burn from walking depend on the intensity, or speed, of your walk. The average walking speed is about 3 miles per hour, and according to the Mayo Clinic, the amount of calories you’ll burn depends significantly on how fast you walk.

For a 160-pound person,  a leisurely 30-minute walk at 2 mph yields a burn of 102 calories, but walk at a more upbeat pace (3.5 mph) and the calorie burn increases by 54% to 157 calories.

Why? Simple: the faster you walk, the more distance you're able to cover in the same amount of time. The sources that suggest you can burn 3,500 calories a week from walking typically assume you walk at the more upbeat pace to achieve the necessary distance.

So assuming you weigh 180 pounds and walk at the necessary intensity, then yes, by simple mathematics, 100 calories burned x 5 miles equals 500 calories, which if you maintain 7 days week becomes 3,500 calories.

If you deviate from either of the above conditions, your results may differ.

On top of all this is another pair of conditions, ones that are more significant and could make all the time you spend trying to reach 10,000 steps almost entirely irrelevant if you aren’t careful: weight loss from running assumes your weight is stable (your calories in equals your calories out). 

You Can’t Walk Away From Your Diet

There’s no doubt that walking more increases your activity levels, leading to more calories burned throughout the day. However, without a better idea about the state of your body’s energy balance, your walking 10,000 steps, 15,000 steps, or even 20,000 steps a day might not be enough to cause any meaningful fat loss or changes in body composition, even if 10,000 steps = 500 calories burned for you.

For example, let’s say that you need 1,800 calories a day to maintain your current body weight, but you actually eat 2,300 calories a day.  Assuming your 10,000 steps equal 500 calories burned (which, as shown above, is far from guaranteed), you’d only be bringing yourself to a net caloric balance of zero, meaning the 10,000 steps you are taking are only helping you maintain your current weight and not lose fat.

Ex. Calories Burned a Day (1,800) + Calories Burned from 10,000 steps (500) = 2,300. 

Calories eaten (2,300). Caloric balance occurs - no weight change.

Now, imagine if you kept careful watch of your diet and consumed 1,800 calories a day. With no extra exercise needed, your weight should remain stable. Now assume that you get your 10,000 steps (and around 500 calories burned), now your net caloric balance is 1,300, reflecting the 500 calories burned from walking 10,000 steps.

Ex. Calories Burned a Day (1,800) + Calories Burned from 10,000 steps (500) = 2,300.

Calories eaten (1,800). Caloric deficit (-500) created - weight change occurs.

If you kept that up for 7 days, theoretically, you could expect to lose a pound of fat in a week, but there would be no way to know if you can expect results like this without getting an estimate of your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR).

You can read up on how to learn what your BMR is and how to use it to get yourself into a caloric balance, but in a nutshell, here’s how:

  • Get your body composition determined and get results for your Body Fat Percentage and Lean Body Mass.

  • Convert your body composition results into your BMR. Some body composition analysis devices will automatically offer this on the result sheet. If yours doesn’t, you can use an online converter, like this one by IIFYM.

  • Multiply your BMR by 1.2. This will give an estimate of how many calories your body needs to maintain its current weight, assuming you don’t do any extra exercise.

The next step would be to start tracking the calories contained in what you eat.  You can do this with a number of popular apps, such as My Fitness Pal.  Once you’ve tracked your diet for a couple days and have a better idea of what your caloric intake is, compare this to your TDEE. If your TDEE is smaller than your caloric intake, you’re likely gaining fat over time.

Depending on how great the difference is between your diet and your TDEE, taking 10,000 steps may not be enough to cause any change in your fat mass.  If you’re overeating to begin with, 10,000 steps may be just enough to stop additional weight gain, but if you’re like most people, you probably don’t start new fitness programs and walk 10,000 steps just to maintain weight; you want to lose weight.

Also: if you catch yourself eating more because you're now more active (a pretty common urge), this also will sabotage your efforts.

You can’t outwalk your diet. If you’re hoping to burn pounds of fat by taking 10,000 steps a day, unless you’re doing a lot of things right already – like tracking your calories in – you may be walking for a long time.

Every Journey Begins With A First Step - Make It Count!

There’s no question that there are enormous health benefits to increasing your activity through activities like walking, even if they don’t necessarily lead to weight loss. It’s safe to say that everyone reading this article now could likely benefit from getting up and walking around a little more.

But if weight loss is your mission, it’s important that you understand how weight loss occurs so you can set appropriate goals to help you achieve it, and that includes putting plans like walking 10,000 steps a day into context.

Weight loss occurs when you’re in a caloric deficit. A lot of the time, having "things in balance" is understood to be a good thing. Not when it comes to calories. If your calories in/out are in balance, you can’t expect much change. You’ve got to get out of balance for change to happen, and generally the easiest way to do that is by increasing exercise and decreasing calories from food.

So while setting a goal of reaching 10,000 steps may sound like something that could work for you and help you increase your activity level, before you put your hopes in this (or any) goal, take a minute to understand what you’re embarking on.  

It may be that 10,000 steps could form just a part of your exercise program, or that you choose to do 10,000 steps a day in addition to swimming, biking, or other healthy activities to increase your caloric burn.

Every journey has a first step. Make sure each step, from the first to the 10,000th to the 100,000th has a purpose.

Otherwise you may be shooting yourself in the foot.