With the popularity of Fitbit and other step trackers, you could probably ask any grade-school kid how many steps people should get each day and you’d get the same answer: 10,000.
But where did this number actually come from? And does it have anything to do with health and fitness?
To answer these questions, we have to go back in time to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
In the leadup to the Olympic Games, the Japanese government tried to promote awareness around being active. And in the wake of all that promotion, an opportunistic Japanese company created the “Manpo-Meter”, which literally translates to “step meter.”
Not the most exciting marketing. So, the Manpo-Meter soon became the “Manpo-Kei Meter,” or the “10,000 step meter.”
And that is literally it. All the magic beyond 10,000 steps/day lies in a clever marketing campaign to sell pedometers, not in research or coaching experience.
Which leads us to the natural question of how many steps do you actually need?
How many steps do you really need?
The short answer is that it’s not a number, it’s a range.
New research shows that the floor of that range is around 7,000 steps/day (Paluch et al, 2010). This appears to be enough activity to significantly lower the risk of premature, all-cause mortality in both men and women compared to people who move less.
Intuitively, a minimum number of steps/day makes sense. We know that moving around is an important part of being healthy.
It’s also a number that’s generally enough to support recovery and it’s the number you’ll need to hit each day to earn points throughout the challenge.
But if 7,000 is the minimum number of steps you should take, what’s the maximum? And why is there a maximum in the first place?
To get to the heart of the story, we have to understand the connection between energy and activity.
The easiest way to think of activity is turning energy (in the form of calories) into movement.
The further you go, the more energy it takes to get you there.
On the one hand, we’ve talked about how movement supports recovery and is crucial for health, wellness, and longevity.
On the other hand, energy is also your body’s most important, and limited resource.
The same energy that powers your steps is also required to fuel your workouts, repair damaged tissues, recover from training, power your brain, and perform basic biological functions.
So, if you spend a ton of energy on activity, there will be less available to go towards other areas that are important for health and fitness.
That means to fully answer the question of how many steps are too many, we have to get an idea of roughly how much energy your body’s metabolism can produce a day in the first place.
The metabolic ceiling—why more is not always better
The concept of the metabolic ceiling comes from research by Dr. Herman Pontzer. It started when he was studying a hunter-gatherer tribe in Africa called the Hadza tribe.
He wanted to find out how many more calories they burned per day than other, less active populations like those in the west.
When his team crunched all the numbers, he was shocked to find that even though the Hadza were far more active, they ultimately burned roughly the same amount of calories each day.
While it might not make intuitive sense that if you go 20,000 steps a day you’re not actually burning more total calories per day than if you only go 10,000 steps, that’s what his research showed.
The reason for this is what we’ve been discussing. Your body has a limit to how much energy it can produce in a day. Just because the Hadza moved more didn’t change the rules of metabolism.
Dr. Pontzer followed up his initial research to try to better understand these rules of metabolism and what the upper limits are.
Through his work, he discovered this limit appears to be right around 2.5 x the amount of calories your body needs to just stay alive each day. This is also known as your basal metabolic rate or BMR.
So, if your BMR is 1,000 calories, then the most calories your body can produce in a single day will be right around 2,500.
While it’s possible to exceed this limit for short periods of time, his research showed that even top endurance athletes and people doing long, high-mileage treks ultimately ended up falling within this 2.5 x BMR number.
He coined this term the metabolic ceiling.
Your activity sweet spot
The important lesson to learn from Dr. Pontzer’s research is that there is a real cost to being too active. It forces your body to pull energy away from other important areas like recovery, regeneration, and even the immune system.
If you’re trying to improve your fitness, it’s counterproductive to put so much energy into moving and training that your body doesn’t have enough left over to drive recovery and make you more fit.
Because all steps aren’t created equal and there’s a difference between working out and walking, it’s better to consider the upper limit of daily activity in terms of energy (calories) rather than just step count.
To do this, you’ll need to estimate your own metabolic ceiling.
Most people have never had their basal metabolic rate tested before, but you can use what’s called the Mifflin-St Jeor equation to estimate it.
You can find calculators for this formula online. Once you’ve input your height, weight, and age, it will give you an estimated BMR.
From there, multiply this number by 2.5 to get the maximum amount of energy (calories) your body can consistently produce each day.
Using Morpheus and a connected activity tracker, you can gauge how many calories you burn at different activity levels each day. You’ll also be able to see the difference in daily calories and steps depending on your training.
It’s also important to keep in mind that just because the upper limit is 2.5 x BMR, it doesn’t mean that’s how many calories/steps you should shoot for every day. You want to give yourself a bit of a buffer and make sure your body always has plenty of energy to go towards recovery.
This also means it’s a smart strategy to adjust your activity and calories each day based on your recovery in Morpheus.
If your recovery is lower, you want to make sure you have plenty of energy available for the body to repair and regenerate itself. That means sticking closer to the 7,000 steps per day floor than to the upper limit.
When your recovery is higher, on the other hand, then you can be more active and spend more calories on training without worrying about it potentially slowing down your recovery.
Using this strategy, you might not win any competitions for the most steps, but staying within your activity sweet spot each day will help you win the game of fitness (and do well in the challenge).
Take a few minutes to calculate your BMR using the Mifflin-St. Jeor formula and then multiply by 2.5 to get your metabolic ceiling.
If you’ve been using an activity/calorie tracker, look back through your numbers to see how often you come close to this limit.