Q&A: 10,000 steps

Q: I've heard many recommendations to use a pedometer and try to walk 10,000 steps a day. I've been using one for years and usually meet or exceed the target. But most of my steps are at a normal walking pace — just to get where I'm going. What I usually don't manage is 30 minutes of exercise a day. The 10,000 steps can't be the same thing as 30 minutes of exercise a day. How do these fit together?

A: I think it's time you and I had the talk. About guidelines. When a government loves its citizens very much, it offers them advice in the form of easy-to-remember numbers. But while these suggestions are helpful starting points (especially for folks who haven't yet dragged themselves off the couch), their value depends on the individual needs of the person. So how do all of these recommendations fit together? In you.

Those 10,000 steps (an idea that originated in Japan) are a terrific indicator that you're getting more activity than the average person and warding off disease in the process, says Melissa Johnson, executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

In fact, she wouldn't even have true exercise newbies go that far. "We want to encourage sedentary people, and that figure could be daunting," she says.

The council's baseline recommendation, therefore, is actually 8,500 steps a day. That's the 5,000 most people rack up in the course of a day with an extra 3,500 tacked on.

In other words, the 30-minutes-a-day exercise standard can be part of the 10,000-steps goal as long as you're moving quickly enough to raise your heart rate. And it doesn't have to be done in one chunk; "bouts of 10 to 15 minutes are great," Johnson adds. So if your main concern is merely meeting these two standards, just put a bit more spring into your step during longer treks.

And while walking works wonders, it's hard to feel healthy without a strength, balance and flexibility regimen, as well.

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