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What 10,000 Steps Means to Your Feet & Brain

What 10,000 Steps Means to Your Feet & Brain

By Shane Sauer

You’ve probably heard of that magic goal of 10,000 steps per day. It’s been all over the news for years and is touted by every company that sells a fitness tracker.  Studies have linked taking 10,000 steps per day with all types of health benefits including reduced risk of chronic disease and improved mood.  Interestingly, the original choice of 10,000 steps had no scientific backing at all.  It came from an advertisement for a Japanese pedometer, the ‘manpo-kei’ or ’10,000 steps meter’!

While all of that is well and good, this blog is not going to discuss the health benefits or walking more and how to do it.  You can find that anywhere on the web.  Rather, this blog will cover what all these steps might mean for your feet, your body, and your brain.

Let’s Do Some Math

To really get a feel for just how much work 10,000 steps is, it helps to see the numbers.  However, if math makes your eyes gloss over, just check out the last bullet in each section and move on.

This is how far 10,000 steps is:

  • The average person’s stride is about 3 feet long.
  • There are just under 6,000 feet in a mile.
  • So, the average person needs approximately 2,000 steps to go 1 mile.
  • In summary, 10,000 steps is about 5 miles worth of walking!

This is how long 10,000 steps takes:

  • The average person walks at about 3 miles per hour.
  • That’s completing 1 mile every 20 minutes.
  • It’s going to take 100 minutes to go 5 miles.
  • In summary, 10,000 steps is going to take over an hour and a half of walking!

If 10,000 steps were considered weight lifting:

  • On average, each step loads the body with approximately 1.2 times body weight.
  • If a person weighs 150 pounds, each step puts 180 pounds of force on their body.
  • This is could more than double if you’re running those steps.
  • In summary, walking 10,000 steps is putting 1.8 million pounds of force through your feet each day!

Why does all of this matter?  Hopefully, you can see that taking 10,000 steps is one heck of a workout! Try to lift 1.8 million pounds in your next 90-minute gym session.

Feet Are Really Important

It should be pretty obvious that all of this force is going into your feet.  Your feet are the first shock absorbers in your gait (walking) cycle and they are brilliantly designed for this task.  The ankle joint allows the foot to roll from the outside heel to ball of the foot and off the big toe.  This spreads the force throughout the foot while also creating a smooth motion to carry you into the next step. 

During the gait cycle, the foot itself is making use of its 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles.  The arch of the foot rotates and flexes throughout the movement while the ball of the foot and toes spread out. This again is part of the shock absorption.  As you complete the gait cycle, these movements are reversed and energy is transferred to the next step.  All of this happens naturally to transfer the load and help protect the rest of the body.

Walking Is a Whole-Body Exercise

From there, the force of walking travels throughout your whole-body on what is called the back-force transmission line.  In other words, it travels up your leg, crosses to the other side of your body in your pelvis (at the SI or sacroiliac joint) and continues up your torso until finally reaching both your jaw and your arm.  Along this path, your body continues to dissipate the force by bending in places like your knees and hips, rotating in the pelvis and spine, and through the swinging of your arm. Pretty brilliant design, no?!  And we usually don’t even have to think about it.

What About Shoes?

Let’s digress and discuss shoes (and orthotics) for a moment.  Shoes are an amazing tool.  They protect our feet from harmful objects.  They keep our feet warm. They can provide additional shock absorption.  And they’re super important for fashion (at least that’s what I’m told).

However, we now have many types of shoes that no longer aid the foot in what it does, but instead try to replace and even prevent natural foot movements.  While all of this has good intentions (relieving pain or looking good), in the end, it’s likely caused a lot of problems.  Think of it this way, if you hurt your knee, you might put a brace on it while it heals. Once it does, you would ideally do some exercises to regain range of motion and strengthen the muscles around the knee. You might still wear the brace for certain activities, but you’re not likely to continue wearing the brace all the time for the rest of your life.  Why should you treat your feet differently?

As your feet no longer have to move, they become weak, uncoordinated and you lose the ability to naturally absorb shock.  Because walking is a whole-body exercise, this can have repercussions at any point along the back-force transmission line. This is just one more reason why the site of pain (ankle, knee, hip, low back, mid back, neck, shoulder, wrist, jaw) might not be the cause of the pain.

Retraining Your Brain

Now that you are armed with all of this information, what should you do?  Here are a few simple suggestions to put this information to use:

  1. Use shoes wisely – Remember, shoes are tools and have a place and a purpose.  Choose wisely for your activity and consider spending some waking hours without them on.  And if you do decide to change your shoe wearing habits, do so slowly so your feet have time to adapt.
  2. Exercise your feet – Purposefully building strength, suppleness, and control in the foot is key to enjoying yourself when walking. There are many exercises available on the web for this.  Be sure to assess and reassess which ones work best for you.
  3. Keep your whole body moving well – Because walking is a whole-body event, improving movement skills in all of your body is a good idea. Some things to consider might be joint mobility exercises or getting some body work (massage) done to you.
  4. Go for a walk, often – “The greater the load, the greater the learning”. Besides being a great, whole-body exercise, walking integrates newly gained movement patterns into your subconscious.  Walking after completing numbers 2 & 3 above allows the changes and improvements you created to stick in your brain and become part of your natural movement patterns.
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