The humble step tracker has had its day

But we’re suckers for gamification, aren't we?
Death to step tracking

Your fitness tracker is lying to you. That 10,000 step goal? Kind of arbitrary. The nicely rounded number originated in Japan, around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where one company cashed in on the fitness hype with a pedometer called the manpo-kei, which translates to "10,000 steps meter". It was a number taken from a single study, but it managed to stick. Now pick up any fitness tracker or smartwatch and nine times out of ten it will offer at the very least a pedometer feature, often setting your daily goal at 10,000 steps. But despite what you may have heard about this being a bona fide threshold for a healthy heart, it's not science.

Yet it perseveres. For its part, Fitbit has staunchly defended its default 10,000-step goal, stating that this number roughly equates to five miles, "which (when it includes 30 minutes at a moderate intensity) satisfies CDC guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week."

Read next: How to set your fitness goals - and stick to them

Meanwhile Apple gets users to close Activity rings, which are calculated with a combination of movement and heart rate data, but are still going to mean diddly all to your doctor. It could be anything, really. Fill in the oblongs. Collect the chicken drumsticks. Congratulations, you earned 14 purple badgers and hit your day's movement goal. Have a cookie.

When it comes to step counting, many doctors I've spoken to have told me the same thing: it just doesn't mean much. The baseline studies aren't there, accuracy varies across devices (as we often find in testing), people don't wear them continuously, and there are too many other variables to take into consideration. If you and I take 1,000 steps, but yours are all uphill and mine take place across an even surface, our pedometers will congratulate us equally, but you've probably burned a higher number of calories and done more good for your body.

More useful to your doctor are going to be long-term measurements of blood pressure, heart rate, glucose, even hydration, which many wearables are starting to hone in on or companies are at least thinking about. These things will help build a more accurate picture of how healthy we really are, and as wearable makers look to build out platforms that doctors can tap into, they're the things that will matter. We're seeing wearables that dig into heart rate variability, VO2 Max, and even stress, which are going to be much more useful indicators of how we're looking after our bodies.

All this said, it's difficult to deny that someone who's active is probably going to be healthier than the serial couch potato. That's just biology 101. Sure, walk into your doctor's office, proudly tell her you've been getting 4,000 more steps a day than your normal, and she'll probably respond with little more than a shrug. But if your Fitbit is getting you off the couch when you would otherwise be sticking on Hansel & Gretel Get Baked for the umpteenth time, does it matter if that 10,000 goal is based in stone cold solid science?

Because one of the toughest challenges of the fitness tracker maker is behavior economics, ensuring we not only keep wearing our trackers, but keep using them properly. This is something I hear Apple is thinking a lot about at the moment, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that in watchOS 4 it's introducing new monthly activity challenges to help you round those circles and hit those targets. It's about that space between intention and action, and if it requires closing a ring or coloring in a penguin to get there, so be it. We've seen Fitbit introduce new challenges to get people moving, and I have to admit that I'm more likely to budge when the process is more gamified.

So is it time to consign step tracking to history? It seems unlikely that step tracking will ever be useful in isolation, and as wearables get better at tracking the stuff that matters the humble step counter will be destined for the trash. But perhaps even then, for those of us who sometimes struggle to find the motivation to be active, the manpo-kei mentality can still have a place.


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