Wearables 101: Is 10,000 Steps a Day Really Necessary?

August 10, 2020 - 10 minutes read

Reaching 10,000 steps in one day is much easier said than done. Depending on your stride length, this adds up to about 4 to 5 miles of steps a day. For most people, 10,000 is a reach goal, with 5,000 or even 8,000 steps being more easily-attainable goals. Where did the concept of 10,000 steps begin?

In 1965, a Japanese medical development company built a device called “Manpo-kei”, which translates to “10,000 steps meter” in English. Many people see the 10,000-steps-a-day goal as too ambitious or too simplistic. The argument is that steps don’t encompass everything (i.e. how many calories you burned while scrubbing your shower) and that fitness trackers often miscount steps.

Skeptics of the 10k Goal

When Fitbit launched in San Francisco in 2009, the company used this metric as the default daily step count goal for all users who bought a fitness tracking device. The two co-founders, James Park and Eric Friedman, were inspired by the Nintendo Wii to create wearable technology that used sensors to gamify health and fitness. They wanted to make being healthy both achievable (through daily habits) and fun (with real-time stats, goal measurement, and phone notifications).

Although Park believes that the 10k step goal is valuable for people around the world to motivate themselves to move more, he says steps aren’t the only benchmark in improving your health and fitness. For that reason, Fitbit and the other wearable companies are continuously working on expanding and evolving their measurement metrics and areas of tracking. Although steps allow us to get a glimpse into our activity for the day, we also now have stairs tracking, activity tracking, and much more. The goal is to help people see how these areas all fit together to form a holistic picture of your health.

In other words, it humbles us to understand that everyone has at least one thing they could improve upon. Another major addition to the fitness tracking world is analysis: your wearable’s app can tell you what your statistics mean, how you can improve them, and things to watch out for. For example, devices with sleep tracking emphasize that constant lack of sleep can take a toll on your productivity, mood, and ability to reason.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an exercise and activity recommendation of a minimum of 150 minutes of weekly moderate exercise. That adds up to about 30 minutes of exercise per day, which satisfies the 10,000 step goal. For most people, 10,000 is a good place to start, but fitness trackers do let you adjust your personal goal to be more attainable. It’s okay to lower your goal if it makes it more likely to be achieved, rather than feeling like a failure day after day of missing the 10,000 step goal.

Tracking More Than Just Steps

Research shows that increasing your daily activity can improve your health in a variety of ways: better sleep, disease prevention, and improved cognitive function. Getting started is the most difficult part for most people, so buying an affordable fitness tracker can get things moving in the right direction quickly. Fitbit, in particular, focuses on making fitness more social and engaging, with challenges you can participate in with family and friends and fun animated badges for reaching milestones.

Park says he remembers sitting in an airport early on and overhearing people asking each other whether they were close to hitting their step goal for the day. The time was almost midnight, and the group got up to reach their 10,000 step goal by swiftly walking around the area. For Park, the most fulfilling aspects were that the users were motivated by the goal and that they were accomplishing the goal by moving together. That’s when Park knew that he and Friedman had created a global phenomenon.

Today, 10,000 steps remains the first goal we see when we get a new fitness tracker, but it’s not the only (or the most important) metric being tracked and analyzed. Fitbit added sleep tracking to their devices because resting rounds out a healthy lifestyle. There’s no way your body can recover from a daily 10,000+ step count without enough sleep. Additionally, lack of sleep can impact cognitive function and increase the risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. It’s extremely important that people get eight or more hours of sleep every night.

To develop the sleep tracking feature, Fitbit had to spend a lot of time researching and testing. Back then, the only way you could track sleep and understand it was to pay a visit to an expensive sleep lab. Using heart rate sensors within their IoT application, the company was able to pinpoint the exact times you fall asleep and wake up. Fitbit now offers “sleep insights”, where it nudges you to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and consistent amount of sleep.

Unlocking New Achievements

Using advanced algorithms and sophisticated sensors, fitness trackers now keep an eye on many health metrics. One new feature is “Active Zone Minutes”, which tells you whether or not you’re meeting goals for vigorous exercise, like cardio, cleaning, or even playing with a toddler for a half-hour. But for Park, one of the biggest breakthroughs was adding heart-rate tracking to the Fitbit devices. Heart rate is a major indicator of health; for example, resting heart rate tells you how healthy your heart is (you’ll see it decrease after you spend a few weeks consistently doing cardio workouts). The heart also transports unoxygenated blood to the lungs, so reduced heart function directly affects breathing, oxygen saturation in the brain, and more.

Since the addition of heart-rate tracking, Park and Friedman have heard many stories from Fitbit users around the globe about how their device saved their life. The company is now conducting a study to see if Fitbit devices can find irregular heart rate (atrial fibrillation) in users. The newest generation of the Apple Watch has included an EKG (electrocardiogram) that alerts the user when their heart rate is irregular and abnormal. The Apple Watch then asks you to relax and take a seat to stabilize your heart rate and stress level.

Eventually, Park wants Fitbit devices to become more like “check engine” lights for the user’s health. He says that the global pandemic is significantly impacting how we work and live, and that stress has a lot to do with physical and mental health. When we can manage our stress levels, we experience a lift in our mood and outlook on life. Mindfulness sessions offer psychological and physiological improvement, and Fitbit has developed a “Relax” feature for some of their devices. It tracks your heart rate and breathing while it coaches you to inhale and exhale slowly and consistently.

The Limitless Potential of Sensors

Steps were the first feature to come out of using sensors for fitness tracking. And steps will always be a part of the holistic picture of health. But we can do more to actively improve our lifestyles and bodies, and advancing sensor technology unlocks more and more potential for what’s possible.

As for Park, his average daily step count is 10,000 per day, but he won’t hold his users to that if they’re not comfortable with it. Do you use a fitness tracker? Do you enjoy it? What features do you use the most? Let us know in the comments below!

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