Think you're regularly hitting that 10,000 daily steps ideal? An intriguing new study comparing activity rates around the globe has some eye-opening news about how sedentary people in the U.S. actually are.
Rob Culpepper
| Credit: Rob Culpepper/Getty Images

Taking 10,000 steps a day is considered a healthy goal if you want to be reasonably fit and give your overall wellness a boost. But how often do you actually hit that number?

If you're like many Americans, you're falling short, according to new research from Stanford University, which found that people in the U.S. took an average of just 4,774 step daily. That’s below the worldwide average of 4,961 steps per day and lands America at number 30 out of the 46 countries evaluated by the study authors.

Where did people take the most steps? Hong Kong came in at the top of the list, with an average of 6,880 steps every day. Indonesia ranked last, with residents there only walking 3,513 daily. To get those numbers, the researchers used an app that works with the step-tracking chips in smartphones. They obtained and then analyzed data from more than 693,000 people.

As obesity rates in the U.S. continue to rise (albeit more slowly than in years past—a small win!), our sedentary ways are more than a little concerning. Physical inactivity leads to an estimated 5 million deaths worldwide every year, according to the National Institutes of Health, which funded the study.

Our average daily step count isn't the only way the researchers measured how inactive Americans are. The study team also took a look at something called "activity inequality," or the difference between people who walk a lot and people who don’t. The bigger the gap between a country’s walkers and its couch-surfers, the more that country struggled with obesity, says lead study author Tim Althoff, a PhD candidate in computer science at Stanford.

“Just like economists can measure how much richer are the rich compared to the poor, we similarly looked at the ‘activity rich,’” explains Althoff. Out of the 46 countries studied, the U.S. ranked a dismal 42 for activity inequality, which makes Americans nearly 200% more likely to be obese than someone living in Hong Kong, China, or Sweden, the countries with the least activity inequality.

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The researchers also examined the link between activity rates and where a person lived—such as a neighborhood designed for walking rather than driving. The conclusion: residing in a more walkable area helped people take more steps. “How active you are is not only your personal decision,” Althoff says. “It’s really quite significantly impacted by where you live and how easy your environment makes it for you to be active.”

Of course, you’re not about to relocate just to walk more (although if you are up for a move, these are the most walkable cities). But you can aim to work in more movement during your day, Althoff says. You've heard it before, but tips like these are worth repeating: stroll down the hall to speak with your co-worker instead of drafting another email, and park at the far end of a parking lot or garage so you have to do a little walking to get to your office or the store.

Those extra steps can add up fast, and you don't necessarily need to make 10,000 your ultimate goal. Judging by our national average of 4,774 daily steps, 10,000 might be too ambitious. When a goal feels unreachable, it could actual discourage you from trying any harder, Althoff says. Plus, it doesn't take into account age and your overall health.

“A young healthy person should have a different goal than an older or less healthy person with conditions that don’t enable them to be that active,” he says. Researchers are still crunching the numbers on what the exact right step count might be for different types of walkers, but in the meantime, “shoot for small but sustained increases,” he says.