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Health

A Requiem for 10,000 Steps, or: Why 'Health' Is a Scam

Everything you thought you knew about health was a lie.

by Joel Golby
23 February 2017, 11:55am

1. How many steps have you taken today? Not interested – here's how many I've done: four thousand, six hundred, eleven. I walked around the office a bit then walked 0.8 of a mile on my lunch break. I went up and down to the bathroom a few times. I went and played on a new VR machine thing that had me walking slowly around a room, delicately painting with unreal ropes of neon. According to the Health thing on my phone, my right leg has moved in front of my left leg 4,611 times today. Or vice versa. Maybe the right leg had only moved in front of the left leg half that many times, because obviously the left leg has to— actually: you know what, whatever. The point is: I have walked. The point is that doesn't matter any more.

2. What we are here to discuss is this news story this week that says this: the 10,000 steps you and I know and love – the bedrock on which personal fitness is built – is hooey, a scam, nonsense, arbitrary. This is because of a doctor, who said that thing. Look, here's the BBC:

A scientist in the US claims fitness apps could be "doing more harm than good".

Dr Greg Hager, a computer science expert, has told Newsbeat "very few" of them have any base in scientific evidence.

Many of the most popular ones set users a target of 10,000 steps a day. But Dr Hager says this is actually a pretty arbitrary goal, based on a single study carried out in Japan 50 years ago.

Okay, so:

Although they can help in a variety of ways, many feature a step-counter which rewards users for hitting 10,000.

Dr Hager, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says this is one example of how they're often disconnected from science.

"Some of you might wear Fitbits or something equivalent, and I bet every now and then it gives you that cool little message 'You did 10,000 steps today,'" he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Friday.

"But why is 10,000 steps important? What's big about 10,000?

"Turns out in 1960 in Japan they figured out that the average Japanese man, when he walked 10,000 steps a day, burned something like 3,000 calories and that is what they thought the average person should consume. So they picked 10,000 steps as a number."

And:

He argues following arbitrary goals could have a negative effect overall. "Imagine everyone thinks they have to do 10,000 steps, but if you are not actually physically capable of doing that, you could actually cause harm or damage by doing so."

I have read this a number of times and I'm still not quite sure what it means, really.

3. Okay, so if the number is arbitrary, but not having a number is also arbitrary, then: how much are we or are we not supposed to walk, each day? 

Before the single study carried out in Japan 50 years ago, we did not have the 10,000 figure. We were just walking, aimlessly and uncounted. Then we had the 10,000 figure, out of wherever, and we had something to aim for. So we all started to try and walk 10,000 steps every day. But now we are being told that this figure means nothing. Nothing. So what do— do I walk, here, or not? Am I supposed to walk? I don't understand.

4. All he is saying is the number is arbitrary! That's not saying anything! This is like when you get stuck talking to a really stoned person at a party at 3AM – ~the st0ner hour~ – and he tells you his theory about countries ("Countries are just lines, man") while slowly burning holes in his hoodie with a lighter. It doesn't mean anything!

5. Last year I saw a photo of myself and in it I was extremely fat, so I made a conscious decision to stop being that for a while. Now we can go on a whole thing about this, it being 2017 – that body positivity and acceptance movements negate or at least go some way to resisting the force of Big Diet and the grim but unerringly forward-clunking gears of the weight-loss industry, and that hey, if you don't want to lose weight, you shouldn't feel pressured to! – but also I personally looked like a phonebox someone had taken to Uniqlo, and it was getting to a point where I had to go to special dad shops to buy my jeans, so personally for me, yes, I was at a point where I wanted to weigh less. Your mileage may vary.

(Photo: Ryan McGuire, via)

And so anyway, the first step (!!!) towards that was downloading the fun calorie tracking app "My Fitness Pal" and dutifully logging every calorie I consumed in it. This was tedious, and talking about it is tedious, but sometimes life is unexciting and we have to go through the ennui as well as the lows and also the highs, and this is where we are up to here. It was summer, and the evenings were long and light and pleasant, and so I started walking home, with my iPhone counting my steps all the way. And then when I did 10,000 steps I had more or less worked away the same number of calories as are in a Double Decker. And slowly my weight started to drop and now I have a jawline again. So this is why I think 10,000 steps are alright.

6. The thing, I suppose, now is that this doctor's opinion will be misread, by some people, the kind of people who read headlines and not reports – are we all not guilty of that? We are – and so, at some point, in the near-future but not the far, someone will be in a pub and go: "Ah! I walked 10,000 steps today." And someone else – a man, most likely; the kind of man who studied law but didn't ever practice law; real ale and rugby kind of knobhead – the man will say:
"You know that's a crock?" he'll say.

"A crock of shit."

8. I suppose that is the danger with all health news, isn't it. That health guidelines are just arbitrary numbers we can follow or not follow depending on our needs. Drink eight glasses of water a day. Three units a week of alcohol. 10,000 steps. Five pieces of fruit and veg a day (now ten, absurdly). Thirty-two grams of protein, or whatever. Zero grams of cocaine. There is a matrix of numbers we should try and live our life within the edges of, and it is there for a reason, and the reason is because we are all adults who stopped listening to the wisdom of our parents years ago – when did you actually, properly, last listen to your mum? She has to put on like six separate pairs of glasses to even look at an iPad screen. You don't listen to this woman – and so without that knowledge we are wild and lawless. And then science comes along, with a warm arm around the shoulder, and tells us in a clinical and unemotional voice that we can't storm to our room yelling "I HATE YOU!" any more. It tells us: hey, buddy. Try eating a bit more fibre and then you'll shit better.

9. Who invented the pedometer anyway? When in history were we first able to count how much we walked? In olden days, when someone wanted to walk 10,000 steps in a day, did they just have to… like, count them? No. You need a device. Hold on, I'll check Wikipe

In 1965 a pedometer called a manpo-kei (meaning "10,000 steps meter" Japanese: 万歩計) was marketed in Japan by Y. Hatano.[14] Y. Hatano promoted "manpo-kei pedometers" from 1985, after his research was accepted as proving that 10,000 Steps A Day was the proper balance of caloric intake and activity-based caloric expenditure to maintain a healthy body. Jiro Kato, who founded Yamasa Tokei Keiki Co., Ltd. in Tokyo, manufactured pedometers recognized to be accurate, and named them "manpo-meter" (later "manpo-kei", registered as a trademark of the company), claimed to be the world's first device to measure number of steps of walking.[15]

Oh my god: the inventor of the pedometer also came up with the arbitrary 10,000 steps figure, based solely on his own research. Of course the inventor of the pedometer had a vested interest in us counting our steps! So everyone in the world would buy pedometers!

The! 10,000! Steps! Figure! Is! And! Always! Has! Been! Bull! Shit!

10. This is the end of health as we know it. Walk 8,000 steps today, I don't care. Eat anywhere between zero and 1,000 pieces of veg. Drink a pint of vodka. I don't care. Smoothies don't mean anything. Walking doesn't mean anything. Health doesn't mean anything. All health is is the difference between dying slowly and eating pizza a lot or dying slowly and having quite strong arms. I don't care any more. Walk where you want. Get a bus where you want. Sit on the sofa so long you form into a part of it. Sit in bed so your skin fuses to the sheets. I don't care any more. RIP 10,000 steps. You never even mattered anyway.

@joelgolby