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Exercise For Diabetes

Stop Walking the 10,000 Steps!

Credit: pedometersaustralia-blog.com

It’s a myth that we should walk 10,000 steps every day. Yet walking is the easiest and best physical activity for almost all of us who have diabetes. More is almost certainly better.

Do you know why and when the 10,000 figure originated? Way back in the 1960s a Japanese company was trying to sell pedometers. Some really smart people came up with that number for its extremely successful marketing campaign.

This advertisement didn’t have its roots in research, and my search of the U.S. National Library of Medicine didn’t turn up any scientific basis for it. While some studies have used the 10,000 step figure as a benchmark in the past few years, they are taking it for granted rather than as a fact.

I Fell for the Myth

Actually, about 10 years ago I fell for this myth myself, as I wrote almost 10 years ago at 10,000 Steps. After all, it is the most widely accepted walking goal that we have.

Fortunately, the doctor that I went to then recommended that I stop walking that much every day. While he agreed with the standard advice to get regular exercise, he told me that exercising every day can be counterproductive, because it doesn’t give our muscles a chance to recover. His exercise schedule is two days on, two days off, two on, one off.

I still think that this schedule can make more sense for some people than exercising every day or doing without any schedule. But I soon realized that even walking 10,000 steps during three days a week doesn’t fit into my overall schedule. While I almost certainly walk more than 30,000 steps per week, very often they come bunched together in long hikes in the mountains, which I enjoy much more.

Of course, not everyone who has diabetes is even able to walk at all. One of the most common complications of unmanaged diabetes is peripheral neuropathy, which can make walking difficult or impossible. For these people the best way to get the physical activity then need in order to return to good health is probably some form of water exercise.

Setting a Reasonable Goal

A goal of 10,000 steps is certainly a nice round number that we can easily remember. But a goal as unrealistic as this one is for most of us who have diabetes can backfire and make us want to throw up our hands in resignation and self-disgust. it’s not law, gospel, scientific, or even good sense.

It makes much better sense to set a realistic goal for yourself. For most things, I like to set modest goals that I can reach, and then recalibrate. At that point I may set a higher goal or accept that anything more is unrealistic considering my time demands and ability.

Whatever goal you set you need to be able to keep track of steps. A pedometer is a must to keep in your pocket. Who knows, but maybe you will walk even more than 10,000 steps today.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • Gordon Graham at

    Hi David, I love your articles but for once I believe your headline was ill-advised. Yes, I did read the whole article, twice. But I’m concerned that many will interpret your key message to be, “Don’t bother walking, don’t bother exerting yourself…”

    I recently got a FitBit and set a goal of walking 10,000 steps and my readings have been noticeably better (Type 1 for 15 years). I have a desk job but that goal gets me moving and leaving the car behind. I’m usually up to 8,000 steps by the evening and then I walk around the block or around my living room to top it up. I’m always more than 70,000 steps a week.

    I realize some people have trouble moving. But having a goal that takes some effort to reach is the stuff that self-confidence and self-worth are made of. Whether it’s in the water, on a bike, or on your feet, people with diabetes should KEEP MOVING!

    • David Mendosa at

      You could be right that the headline could be misleading. I just used it to attract attention, and certainly got it. Unfortunately, you weren’t the only one who stopped at the headline and didn’t go on to the article. Good for you to walk that much. Of course, the more activity we get the better. But 10,000 steps is still not the rule!

  • Monica at

    David, I love this article. I use my smartphone as it has pedometer and it uses steps. I walk a mile 3 to 5 days a week.
    I tried the 10,000 steps one day and about killed myself that’s about 5 miles. And said to self what are you doing?!
    So I decided to do what my former doctor told me to do walk a mile a day 3 to 5 days a week. Its realistic! Especially with 3 bulging discs.

  • Allen at

    I ride a bike. Seems like more work for me but takes less time. I keep my A1C under 7.0 on 2000mg/day. Lots of folks think that’s too high. I don’t eat anything I like. Just kidding. Lots of broccoli and cauliflower as well as other very low carb stuff. 73 years old. Oh I mean young. lol

  • Lizzy at

    The version I heard was that 10,000 of anything in the Japanese culture means the ultimate, like bonzai means 10,000 years. 10,000 steps possibly meant “get going and do your best.”

  • Don Kierstead at

    My experience with type 2 diabetes has been that walking is the best. I have periferal neuopathy and running is next to impossible. 10000 steps/day is way too much for most newbies. I think it took me about 2 years to work up to 3 miles (~7500 steps). For those looking for a shortcut, I highly recommend Dr. Melcola’s great 8 workout or just alternate going fast and slow while walking. You get your heart rate up with fast walking and gives things a chance to recover during the slow. I warm up alternating 25, 50, and 100 steps then 200 or so fast and slow. It gives a great workout, but not too tiring and recovery is quicker for the next day. Just start with about 5-10 minutes a day and gradually increase the time each week. Distance runners use the fast/slow method to increase endurance with great success. For those not into walking outdoors, especially during the wintertime, I bought myself a $100 manual treadmill and walk fast and slow on it for ~15 to 30 minutes 3-4 times a week. The fascinating thing about the manual treadmill is that you provide the energy by pushing the rubber tread – no motor. And they are really durable and don’t break down as much as motorized models. I’ve had mine for 5 years without a breakdown. I find that in a very short time of treadmill usage, it’s a lot easier to walk outside and my legs have strengthened. No obsticles to worry about either on the treadmill. When I first got diabetes and walked outside, I was constantly twisting my ankles on uneven turf or sidewalk and that set me back even further. Hope this helps someone! Let me know if it does, I set the e-mail to notify me on comments. I’d love to hear from you.

    • David Mendosa at

      I think that switching between fast and slow walking is great, Don. Some studies also recommend it.

  • Yvonne Self at

    David, I respectfully disagree with you about walking. Not long after I was diagnosed with an A1c of 11, I decided to try using diet (not weight loss) and exercise as the way to control my blood sugar. For six years, I took no pills or insulin. I walked for two miles, or rode a bike for that long. On rainy days, I rode my stationary bike for 8 min. It worked.!!! In fact, it worked better than the pills and better than the insulin I’m on now. I moved and didn’t have room for a stationary bike, so asked my doctor to put me on insulin.

    • David Mendosa at

      I’m sorry that you misunderstood my article, Yvonne. Actually, my guess is that you only read the title!

      I am certainly not opposed to walking. It’s my main way of getting exercise because I like to hike out in nature. Please read (or re-read it)!

  • Sue T at

    Your story made me smile in remembrance of Dad, who used to say “who the hell are ‘ they ‘ and what do they know”?

  • John Dorey at

    Great article, David. Another example of how we fall prey to unamed experts, when in reality it’s all about marketing. I heard on NPR a few months ago that the whole idea of diamonds for engagements came from the diamond consortium in the early 1900s. As for walking, I don’t hit the 10,000 steps anymore, at least on purpose.