“Did you get your 10,000 steps?” Six words we’ve all asked ourselves, yet seldom questioned. If you find the magic number to be elusive then here’s some good news: research suggests you could skip that extra lap around the block and still reap the rewards.

Walking 10,000 steps a day has long been lauded as the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. You’ve likely celebrated seeing your pedometer tick over 9,999, and told yourself “I’ll get them tomorrow” when falling short. It’s no surprise we strive for the magic five figures – walking brings a slew of health benefits and 10,000 is the default daily step goal for most smart devices.

So why 10,000? Is it because it’s a neat number that has a tidy ring to it? Well yes, kind of... Its origins trace back 70-odd years to a Japanese marketing campaign for the first commercial pedometer ‘Manpo-kei’ – translated in English as the 10,000 step meter. But it wasn’t based on research or health recommendations, it was rather because it sounded nice. Some have even suggested that 10k led the way because the Japanese symbol for 10,000 looks like a person walking – although we’re not sure we see it either!

So what is the magic number?

To date, there’s scant evidence to show whether 10,000 is indeed the gold standard for steps, or simply blue-sky marketing thinking. But on a practical level, if tackling 10,000 steps a day feels like a walk in the park, then keep at it. There’s plenty of research that points to the health benefits of hitting your 10,000 target. And if 10,000 steps is a daily grind, studies show those who take more than 5,000 steps a day have a much lower risk of heart disease and stroke than those who take less than 5,000. Bottom line – every step is a step in the right direction.

So where is the sweet spot to get the most pep out of your steps? According to a 2021 study that tracked the steps of 2,110 middle-aged adults over 11 years, it’s lower than we’ve thought. Researchers found moving more brings greater health benefits – as you would expect. The sweet spot, however, fell below the coveted 10,000 mark, clocking in at around 7,000 steps a day for optimal health benefits. Taking that many steps reduced participants’ chances of premature death by 50 to 70 percent, while striding beyond 7,000 steps saw health benefits plateau.

It’s not one size fits all

Of course, like the 10,000 steps supposition itself, this is not a hard and fast recommendation. With age comes additional hurdles of mobility, aerobic capacity, and biomechanics that can make a lofty step goal even more challenging. A recent analysis of 15 studies considered these factors, looking at the steps of 47,471 adults of varying ages. The authors found a progressively lower risk of premature death among adults aged 60 years and older when hitting between 6,000 – 8,000 steps per day, and among adults younger than 60 years at 8,000 – 10,000 steps per day.

Study lead Amanda Paluch may have summarized it best: “Each incremental improvement in steps can be meaningful for your health. For those falling short of the 10k mark, focus where you are now, and start with achievable goals. If you are at 5,000 steps, work toward 6,000 steps and so on.”

If you’re wondering whether you need to be setting a new land speed record, Paluch has got you covered there too. “Whether power walking or [taking] a more leisurely stroll – both are beneficial for our health. Complete your walk however you most enjoying doing it – even break it up into several shorter bouts throughout the day to keep you coming back to do it again the next day.”

So tread lightly if you wish, or march with purpose for miles on end. If you’re putting your best foot forward, missed steps aren’t a misstep for all the health benefits you need.