Someone recently shared with me an article in the mainstream media that read: “Fitness fanatics should rethink daily 10,000-step goal, Harvard study claims.” Being the Exercise Specialist for MUS Wellness, I suppose I should consider myself in the Fitness Fanatic population, so I read the article to see what I should beware of, regarding getting all of these steps. Whenever there is a sensational, eye-catching headline like this in the mainstream media based on a scientific study concerning fitness, nutrition, or well-being, I think it is hugely important to read the actual study; or at the very least, the abstract of the study, which should be linked within the article.

I wanted to find out who these fitness fanatics were in this new study. It turns out that they were elderly women, with the average age of 72. And what should these women beware of? It turns out that the results of the study showed a significant decrease in all-cause mortality with more steps, up to around 7500 steps, where there was a plateau. In other words, this study found that older women died less frequently the more they moved up to around 7500 steps, and beyond this there was no additional decrease in mortality rates. Not exactly cause for alarm if you’re hitting 8, 9, or 10 thousand.

I think this is a good example of a news organization taking a scientific study and turning it into a misleading headline to get more views. It happens all the time. If you’re interested in a study, it always helps to go to the source. Personally, while I don’t believe there’s anything magical about 10,000 steps (other than it’s a nice round number, and about twice what the average American gets per day), I do believe that for most adults, there are numerous benefits to getting more steps in general.

Several studies have linked an increased number of steps to a reduction of health risks (here’s a relatively recent one that looked at walking postal workers compared to other adults: [original abstract, summary in NYT]). Note that the NYT article also has a catchy headline on the other end of the spectrum.

As you probably know, I’m a big advocate of getting as much movement throughout the day as possible.  I think if there’s one thing wearing a Fitbit has helped me with, it is to be cognizant of how active I am throughout the day, apart from whatever formal exercise session I might do.  I think it’s also a good thing for people to set their own goals based on their baseline of activity, which a wearable activity tracker can help determine.  For example, for someone who averages 4000 steps a day, 10,000 might not seem realistic at first, but striving to hit 5, 6, or 7 thousand would most likely lead to positive health outcomes, which I believe is one of the actual takeaways from this study on older women.

So, whether you are a fitness fanatic, young or old, man or woman, after reading this article, I think you can set your fears aside, and feel good about getting as much purposeful movement as you can throughout your day!

Be well!

Neal

4 thoughts on “Fitness Fanatics Beware!!!

  1. Agreed. Misleading clickbait headlines are a curse. A journal article says a new technique might make it possible to detect methane on planets orbiting other stars. By the time the headline reaches Facebook, it reads, “Scientists discover life on other worlds.”

  2. I saw this article and read it too. I’m glad you addressed the issue and put the facts straight! Headlines are sometimes (usually these days) more misleading than helpful.
    Wanda

  3. Brilliant! Thank you!

    I get very frustrated w/ news headlines and summaries of scientific (&other technical) topics —- actual data/studies often do not support the flashy headline at all and general press summaries can be so poorly written as to be unrecognizable in relation to the referenced raw data/study.

    Arggh.

  4. Good discussion about this deceiving practice, Neal. Truthfully, I opened and read your words BECAUSE of the provocative headline, but I appreciate what you say about closely reading studies and getting to the heart of the scientific results beyond the sensational claims. I’m a 63-year old woman and, like you, I strive to keep moving all day. The 10,000 goal is a great way to track and keep a consistent level of exercise beyond the regular workouts. When I reach 72, 82, 92, I plan to keep on trucking. Cheers!

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