Editor’s Note: This post was updated on August 29, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on April 27, 2016
10 years ago, if you had asked someone “what is your daily goal for steps taken”, you probably would have gotten a blank stare.
But with the explosion in popularity of fitness wearables, it has become almost common knowledge that you need 10,000 steps a day. Some wearables have even gone as far as to call 10,000 daily steps the “magical number.”
While there’s no doubt it’s a healthy idea to walk more, the question on many people’s mind is how effective is walking 10,000 steps for weight loss? For many, the hope is that by walking 10,000 daily steps they can make meaningful changes in your body composition and lose body fat. What does the science say? Let’s find out.
Walking Away From Fat
It’s been claimed that individuals may be able to lose a pound of fat a week just by taking 10,000 steps a day because of the potential to burn 3,500 calories from walking. As a general rule of thumb, a pound of fat contains around 3,500 calories. If you create average 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.
Unfortunately, that 10,000/day = 3,500 calories/week calculation is based on the estimations of a specific body type, that may not apply to you.
To understand why, let’s break this claim down.
Any estimation of how many calories you burn from exercise like walking or running is dependent on how heavy you are. Heavier people on average use more energy to move than lighter people. Most rough estimates revolve around 100 calories burned per mile for a 180-pound person. And 10,000 steps is roughly 5 miles. So assuming you weigh 180 pounds then yes, by simple mathematics, 100 calories x 5 miles equals 500 calories. Over the course of a week that becomes 3,500 calories.
But if you’re lighter or heavier, you will burn less/more calories while taking the same number of steps or walking the same distance.
If you were 120-pounds, in that same mile you would only burn 60 calories. Calculate that over the course of a week and that only becomes 2,100 calories, meaning that you are 1,400 calories short of reaching that 3,500 calorie goal.
Walking Speed and Distance
Even if you happen to be at that 180-pound range, 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 number of calories you’ll burn depends on your walking speed.
For a 180-pound person, a leisurely 30-minute walk at 2 mph yields a burn of 102 calories, but walk at a more moderate intensity (3.5 mph) in the same 30-minute walk and the calorie burn increases by 54% to 157 calories.
Why? It’s simple: the faster the pace the greater your heart rate, and the more you can burn covering the same distance. The sources that suggest you can average weight loss of a pound a week from walking typically assume you walk at pace necessary to cover the estimated 5 mile distance.
If you deviate from either of the above conditions, your results may differ.
But even if you reach 10,000 steps, all of that effort can almost entirely be irrelevant if you aren’t careful: weight loss from walking largely assumes your caloric intake stays the stable.
You Can’t Walk Away From Your Diet
There’s no doubt that walking leads to more calories burned throughout the day. However, without understanding your calorie net caloric balance, 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 improvements to body composition.
In order to achieve fat loss, you need to burn more calories than you get from your food. That’s called a caloric deficit.
For example, let’s say that you need 1,800 calories a day to maintain your current body weight, but you have a daily caloric intake of 2300. 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 help you maintain your current weight, not lose the weight.
To better explain let’s look at two examples.
For our 180-pound person, they burns 1,800 calories naturally (aka their metabolism) throughout the day. Add 500 calories from the 10,000 steps walked, and we are now at 2.300 total calories burned.
Calories Naturally Burned (1,800) + Calories Burned from 10,000 steps (500) = 2,300 Total Calories Burned (TCB)
Now imagine that person has a caloric intake of 2,300.
2,300 (TCB) – 2,300 (Caloric Intake) = Caloric Balance
Caloric Balance means no weight change.
Now, imagine if you kept careful watch of your diet and kept your caloric intake at 1,800 a day.
2,300 (TCB) – 1,800 (Caloric Intake) = 500 Caloric Deficit
If you kept that up for 7 days, theoretically, you could expect weight loss of 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 tested 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.
Every Journey Begins With A First Step – Make It Count!
There’s no question that there are enormous health benefits to increasing your activity level through moderate exercises like walking, even if they don’t necessarily lead to weight loss. A 2010 study has shown that walking more has a whole host of positive health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, cholesterol level, fitness ability and many other variables that contribute towards healthy living. In another study cited by the American Heart Association, researchers found that a regular brisk walk can lower risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes .
It’s safe to say that everyone reading this article now could likely benefit from adopting a healthy habit like walking.
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 goals like walking 10,000 steps a day into context.
Weight loss occurs when you’re in a caloric deficit. 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 your caloric intake.
Setting and achieving a daily goal like 10,000 steps can be a great way to increase your activity level and create a healthy lifestyle. You can add walking as a warm up before a strength training workout, or it can be a workout by itself.
But before you set any fitness goal like walking 10,000 steps, take a minute to understand what you’re embarking on.
Remember the old chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Make sure each step, from the first to the 10,000th to the 100,000th has a purpose.