The power of 10,000 steps

By Daniel Wilcock

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” — Lao Tzu

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In Japan, large numbers tend to be counted in units of 10,000.  America’s $100 bill loosely equals Japan’s 10,000-yen note. When buying a car, Japanese think in terms of how many “man,” or 10-000 yen notes, they will pay.

This tendency, combined with the nation’s love of gadgets, created a perfect opportunity in post-war, pre-bubble Japan to market a gizmo that counts paces.   A research paper in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise recounts this history:

“A value of 10,000 steps is often associated with a healthful level of PA [physical activity] and is commonly promoted… This increasingly popular index can be traced to the 1960s when Japanese walking clubs embraced a pedometer manufacturer’s (Yamasa Corporation, Tokyo, Japan) nickname for their product: manpo-kei (literally translated, ‘‘ten thousand steps meter’’). Subsequently, Dr. Yoshiro Hatano studied typical steps per day of various lifestyles and established that 10,000 steps translated to approximately 300 kcal for an average middle-aged Japanese man.”

In recent years, 10,000 steps have become globally understood code words.  Millions of people have been exposed to the number as the ideal daily walking goal.  Yet making it to the 10,000 mark each day can be tough as for most adults.  It means about 5 miles as the crow flies.

But anyone who simply can’t cram such a lofty goal into their busy lives can take heart. The study referenced above concludes that 3,000—4,000 steps over a 30 minute period, when added to the number of steps normally taken in a day, lead to better health. This conclusion has been massively popularized by the YOU: On a Diet book by Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, which I’d recommend to anyone who wants to understand the scientific mechanics of weight gain and how to reverse it.

I’m convinced that adding almost any amount of extra walking to one’s routine adds a certain zest to the day.  I also think it helps maintain focus during working hours as walking can be a powerful form of meditation.  Walking without headphones, I believe that my mind begins to process and sort all of the riddles, both conscious and subconscious, that have been stacking up over time.  I also think many of our best heuristic approaches, our strategies for living well, come to us while we are out for a walk.

Finally, knowing how powerful the number 10,000 is in Japanese culture, I think this may be one of the nation’s least recognized but most powerful exports. Since westerners tend to think in units of one thousand, adding an extra zero provides a slightly higher target at which they can aim.

But no matter how high the aim, as Lao Tzu said: the journey begins with a single step.

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