We’ve been told countless times that walking or running 10,000 steps a day (about 8 kilometres) is enough to keep us healthy and maintain an ideal body weight. There are office step-a-thons, smart pedometer watches and charity walks centred around this magic number, so where did this number start?

It originated in Japan in the 1960s when a researcher found that most people walked fewer than 4,000 steps per day. He recommended rounding this up to 10,000 per day for a healthy lifestyle and the figure quickly caught on with pedometer manufacturers and fitness challenges; however, that number wasn’t actually based on any concrete evidence.

How do Aussies stack up in the steps-per-day challenge?

Not too well! Fewer than one in five Australian adults are reaching 10,000 steps per day – instead, only about 7,400 on average according to 2011-12’s Australian Health Survey. We are doing better than the US which averages fewer than 5,000, and the British at 3-4,000 per day. The group that really strides ahead is the Amish, who clock up an impressive 18,425 on average! That’s around 15km per day, depending on stride length.

Are 10,000 steps per day enough?

Realistically it’s probably not enough to lose weight or build overall fitness unless you’re restricting calories at the same time. These days, it’s being suggested that 15,000 steps is a better goal for those trying to maintain or lose weight. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity monitored the BMI, waist size, cholesterol and blood sugar of Scottish postal workers who walked all day compared to their office counterparts. Those who walked over 15,000 steps or stood for over seven hours per day had excellent results over all indicators compared to the more sedentary workers.

That said, it’s still better to try to hit that 10,000-step goal than to ignore it completely. Staying active improves your mood and mental wellbeing, boosts your energy, builds strength and helps you maintain a healthy BMI. Mix moderate and high-intensity walking and running with strength building exercise several times per week, and you’ll be looking, feeling and performing at your best.

Try interval training, or powerwalking

If you’re short on time or just want to maximise results from your aerobic exercise, you could try interval walking or running in short bursts to raise then lower your heart rate. In one study of people with Type 2 diabetes, those who walked in three minute bursts of high and moderate-paced walking showed a 20% improvement in their blood sugar disposal compared to those who walked at a consistent pace. All in all, interval training provides an ideal solution whether you’re on a treadmill or hitting the pavement to achieve your steps for the day.