A friend with a wearable fitness tracker defines herself by 10,000 steps. If she gets 10,000 steps today, she feels healthy. If she doesn't get 10,000 steps tomorrow, she doesn't -- even though she also lifts weights four times a week, cycles 80-100 miles a week, and has a BMI of less than 20.

Another friend hits the 10,000 step mark every day, no matter what. If he's lagging behind at the end of the day, he paces around his living room while watching TV.

To him, 10,000 steps is everything: Getting 10,000 steps means he's healthy and fit -- even though he's at least 50 pounds overweight, gets winded after climbing one set of stairs, and has been on cholesterol meds for years.

And even though, as new research shows, there's no science behind a 10,000 step goal.

10,000 Steps: Marketing, Not Science

In fact, instead of being an accurate way to measure health, the 10,000-step goal is mostly the result of marketing.

A common goal of 10 ,000 steps per day has been perpetuated by the press and is often used as the default by software programs on wearables and smartphones.

However, the origin of the goal of 10 ,000 steps per day... likely derives from the trade name of a pedometer sold in 1965 by Yamasa Clock and Instrument Company in Japan called Manpo-kei, which translates to '10 ,000 steps meter' in Japanese.

Yep: That default 10,000 step goal on many fitness trackers (and on the first Fitbit I purchased) is the result of marketing, not science. And it turns out there's almost no research on how many steps are required for health. 

To start to bridge that gap, the researchers assessed step totals and mortality rates for 16,000 elderly women.

Here's what they found:

  • Participants who averaged 4,400 steps per day had a 41 percent lower mortality rate compared to those less active.
  • Participants who averaged over 4,400 steps per day experienced even lower mortality rates...
  • But only up to around 7,500 steps per day; that's when mortality rates plateaued. (Meaning walking more than 7,500 steps per day had no appreciable effect on life expectancy.)

And here's the real key: Participants who increased their daily activity by 2,000 steps experienced positive health outcomes. The risk of heart disease and diabetes in particular decreased dramatically.

The Problem With Numbers...

Say you believe 10,000 steps per day is an important number.

So you get a fitness tracker -- and then you struggle to get to more than 5,000 steps per day. Maybe you're overweight. Or out of shape. Or have joint problems. Whatever the reason... right now, walking a lot more seems impossible.

Which makes you feel hopeless. 10,000 steps is out of reach. So you put away your fitness tracker, and give up. 

Even though increasing your steps by as little as 1,000 or 2,000 per day would still make a meaningful difference to your overall health.  While you may not hit 10,000 steps, that's ok: Walking more than you currently do is good for you.

Or say you're trying to lose weight: While you may not hit an arbitrary number like 1,800 calories per day, reducing your overall intake by 100 or 200 calories per day is good for you.  

Improvement, however small, is good for you -- regardless of how far away you might be from some arbitrary "optimum" target. In fact, the farther away you are from "optimal," the more you need those small improvements. If you're at 9,000 steps and you increase to 10,000, that's nice... but if you're at 3,000 steps and you increase to 4,000, that's awesome.

An arbitrary goal can be helpful as a long-term target, but what really matters is the change you make relative to what you currently do. If you average 5,000 steps a day and increase to 7,000 a day, for you, that's great.

And is all that matters.

Regardless of the default setting on a fitness tracker.

... Is That One Number Can Never Tell the Whole Story

The same applies to business. Say your goal is to hit the $1 million revenue mark; reach $1 million in sales and you've "made it."

Or not. If your operating costs are too high, or your incremental costs are too high, or your customer acquisition costs are too high, you might hit $1 million in revenue... but be even farther in the red.

Which would you prefer: $500,000 in revenue with a 20 percent profit margin, or $1 million in revenue and no profit?

Most will take the profits. 

But then again: Reaching the $1 million mark may provide the cash flow required to add a new product line, or new salespeople, or launch a joint venture with a key partner... and within a year, turn that unprofitable $1 million into a profitable $3 million in revenue.

One number never tells the whole story.  

Arbitrary numbers don't matter. Conventional wisdom -- like 10,000 steps, or eight glasses of water a day, or working on and not in your business is the only path to success -- doesn't matter.

The only numbers that matter are the ones that make a difference for you -- and that fit within an overall plan that helps you achieve what you hope to accomplish.