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The Myth of 10,000 Steps

Apr. 10, 2023 Psychology Today

When I was diagnosed with bone cancer in my left femur 15 years ago this summer, I thought, “I’ll never be able to walk the streets of Paris with my daughters.”

Well, I was in Paris last week, and at least some of the time, I was walking – or, more accurately, limping – along the streets with my girls. At least the garbage strike had lifted, and those streets were relatively clean!

One morning we took a Hemingway walking tour, which took us through the streets of the Left Bank, visiting sites associated with the Lost Generation – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce; Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Beach, and others. Along the way, our guide read us this quote from Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir, A Movable Feast:

I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.

That quotation is one of the more famous descriptions of an idea that goes back to the ancient world (“It is solved by walking,” the 4th-century philosopher Diogenes said) and continues until today (Aaron Sorkin added a scene into the new version of Camelot that opens on Broadway tonight in which Guinevere encourages King Arthur to walk around the castle, a move that produces the idea of the Round Table).

In effect, this reverence for ambulation has taken on near scriptural status in recent years: walking is good for the body! good for the mind! good for the soul! and good for the imagination! Like leaches and whisky in their time, walks have become the go-to tonic of modern times.

Worried about finding the funds to pay your taxes? Take a walk!

The idea that walking could have abundant side effects on mental health, creativity, and well-being goes back decades, with a series of tests on rodents. Studies showed that active animals showed greater neurological activity than sedentary ones. With the addition of several tests, largely of undergraduates, this new consensus about the power of walking began to take over popular media.

More recently, academics began pushing back – hard.

Just this February, Luis Ciria of the University of Granada and six colleagues published a major study in Nature using a metareview of existing research claiming that most studies on the benefits of walking were overstated and based on flimsy data. 

Despite most of the 24 reviewed meta-analyses reporting a positive overall effect, our assessment reveals evidence of low statistical power in the primary randomized controlled trials, selective inclusion of studies, publication bias and large variation in combinations of pre-processing and analytic decisions.

Moreover, those benefits were reduced even further when other moderating factors were considered.

These findings suggest caution in claims and recommendations linking regular physical exercise to cognitive benefits in the healthy human population until more reliable causal evidence accumulates.

As it happens, within days, more reliable evidence appeared.

A massive new study released two weeks ago by Boris Cheval from the University of Geneva and eight colleagues used a new technique of sampling the DNA of 350,000 people. They provided the best evidence yet that “higher levels of moderate and vigorous physical activity lead to increased cognitive functioning.” As one of the lead researchers summarized the finding: “Absolutely, exercise is one of the best things you can do” for your brain.

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