Maintenance Phase

The 10,000 Steps Myth

April 25, 2023
The 10,000 Steps Myth
Maintenance Phase
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Show Notes Transcript

Michael: I have one. It came to me this morning. 

Aubrey: That's very fun. 

Michael: Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast you can count on.

Aubrey: That's great. 

Michael: Isn't it actually legitimately good? I think it's the first good one that I've had since we started this show. 

Aubrey: Look, it's no inconvenient tooth.


Michael: Once every 20 episodes, one of us just has to nail it.

Aubrey: You're Michael Hobbes.

Michael: You're Aubrey Gordon, and everyone [unintelligible 00:00:43] the show. Wait, I did it too fast. I--

Aubrey: [crosstalk] take it this time, that's fine. 

Michael: Wait, let me do it. I'll do it. I'll do it. 

Aubrey: Great, do it.

Michael: If you want to support the show--

Aubrey: Support the show.


Michael: Do you know that's kind of annoying, Aubrey? It actually makes it really hard for me to do it. Has anyone ever told you it's very difficult.

Aubrey: Now who's the tiny repeating machine?

Michael: When someone else is repeating. You can support us on Patreon and Apple and buy T-shirts at TeePublic. And there's links in the show notes.

Aubrey: Look at that. You did it.

Michael: I fucked it up. And today we're talking about Fitbits and 10,000 steps.

Aubrey: I'm calling this episode the myth of 10,000 steps. 

Michael: Oh, we're going for it. You said myth was too strong for the sugar stuff.

Aubrey: Yeah, because they weren't all totally myths. It was a little more complicated. This one, full on a myth. 

Michael: I like it when they're not complicated. I like it when they're simple.

Aubrey: Michael, what is your understanding of this sort of 10,000 steps mark, and what would you say is your relationship to it? Are you a person who tries to get your steps in? 

Michael: Okay, I'm half-spoiled on this, because every once in a while, I will kind of go around my methodology Twitter places, and I will hear tell of the fact that this 10,000 steps thing is totally fake. But then, I have known that you were doing this episode for six months. So, immediately upon seeing any reference to the 10,000 steps number, I'm just like, “No, no, no, close window, ctrl+W. I don't want to get spoiled.” 

Aubrey: Bless you. 

Michael: So, I know that it's probably not true. It's kind of a suspiciously round number. But the thing is, I also probably could have just expected that from the premise of our podcast. 

Aubrey: Yeah, totally, totally. If we're covering it--

Michael: Yeah, if we're here. 

Aubrey: Yeah, that's right. That’s right. 

Michael: And no, I'm not really a 10,000 steps guy. I'm not really someone who tries to quantify my health stuff. I am actually fairly health conscious, but in a qualitative way. Just like, I haven't left the house today. I don't really use the apps that track your jogs. I don't know how fast I run a mile. I've done a couple of half marathons. I couldn't even tell you what my times were. How about you? Do you count anything? 

Aubrey: I was absolutely a hardcore 10,000 steps lady for a couple of years. 

Michael: Really?

Aubrey: Yeah, absolutely. This was when I was not seeing a doctor. I was like, “I better be at the top of my game everywhere else if I'm not seeing a doctor.”

Michael: That's bleak. 

Aubrey: I would go walk in Peninsula Park, this rose garden in Portland, and just walk around the big loop until I got my 10,000 steps and then I'd walk back home.

Michael: And then, did you find it useful doing it? Or how do you think about it now, looking back? 

Aubrey: I enjoyed it. It definitely like, got me out of the house. I found this park that I really liked and liked to spend time in. I would meet people and meet their dogs and I get to pick out my cute workout leggings and all that kind of stuff. But it was also coming from a place of deep anxiety and almost sort of this superstitious desire to believe that if I just did that, I'd be fine even though I didn't have a doctor. It was a coping mechanism. It wasn't actually for love of the game. You know what I mean? 

Michael: Most of adult life is setting arbitrary goals and then reaching them. And so, I've always been fairly magnanimous about people who find this framework useful because it's like, for you, it's 10,000 steps a day. For other people, it's going to be 45 minutes of walking a day. For other people, it's like, “I need to walk my dog," or, "I just want to leave the house once a day.” People kind of come up with these rubrics and it's not really clear to me that one is all that much better than the other, whatever works for the person. And so, it always seemed kind of harmless to me, honestly. Yeah, 10,000 steps, whatever, 5,000, 15,000 whatever works for you. 

Aubrey: Yeah. I think this is one, I would put it in a similar category, which is like, it's definitely not the worst or wildest thing that we're doing as a culture around sort of health and fitness stuff. But it is one that is considerably out of step with the actual science in a way that I think is really interesting. And I think part of what interested me about looking into this was that it really feels this 10,000 steps number has on a cultural level taken on that kind of superstitious overtone of like, “If you don't hit 10,000 steps, something bad is going to happen to your health.” And as ever, all of the science that we talk about on this show is a scatterplot. And there's a pretty wide range of acceptable numbers of steps to get. 

Michael: I like it when you transition us from personal preamble to the content of the show. 

Aubrey: Oh, look at that.

Michael: I see what you're doing. I see what's happening right now. 

Aubrey: This is the format I've been writing in for years. 

Michael: Anecdotally, it gives way to the net graph. That's where we are. 

Aubrey: Yeah, that's right, that’s right. 10,000 steps is sort of all around us. It's the default goal on a Fitbit, on an Apple Watch, on an iPhone. It's recommended, actually, by a number of health authorities around the world. Authorities in Japan and Australia. The World Health Organization talks about 10,000 steps. This is a moment in the story where I imagine a record scratch and a voiceover of 10,000 steps going, "Yeah, that's me. You're probably wondering how I got here."

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Aubrey: If we're going to talk about 10,000 steps, we kind of can't do that without talking about the device that gets us to step counting.

Michael: Fitbit. 

Aubrey: [laughs] Well, pre Fitbit, just straight up mechanical pedometers. 

Michael: Oh, wait, what? Before there were Fitbits, there were actual analog step-counters? 

Aubrey: Are you kidding me? 

Michael: I didn't know this existed. 

Aubrey: Michael. 

Michael: I thought this was like an invention of the internet era. 

Aubrey: Michael, tell me you weren't in WeightWatchers without telling me you weren't in WeightWatchers. Mechanical pedometers have been a thing. 

Michael: How do they work? They attach to your hip or something? 

Aubrey: Yeah, absolutely. Historically, most of them were built by watchmakers because it's just a totally mechanical, weighted system. You sort of clip it to your waistband. All it does is count your steps and it clicks when it counts your steps.

Michael: Oh, my God, so you're walking in the park and it's like click, click, click the whole time? 

Aubrey: Yeah, yeah. But it's not super-duper loud, but it does click. So, steps, or historically paces, have long been used to measure distance. In the research for this episode, I learned that the word "mile" comes from the Latin for 1000 paces. 

Michael: Also, we call a foot a foot.

Aubrey: We do. 

Michael: Like a foot that you walk with.

Aubrey: We do. 

Michael: Yes. 

Aubrey: Pedometers themselves were conceptualized centuries ago, actually. There are some sketches from da Vinci. 

Michael: What? 

Aubrey: But the first one was actually created in the late 1700s by a Swiss watchmaker using the same mechanism he'd developed for a self-winding watch. A number of pedometers were invented around the same time in different countries. One of those people tinkering around with this thing was Thomas Jefferson. So, Jefferson reportedly designed the pedometer and then commissioned it to be made by a watchmaker in Paris. The mechanism for his pedometer is very funny. You would put it in your pocket and there would be a hole in your pocket. The pedometer was tied to a piece of string and the string was tied to your leg.

Michael: Oh. 

Aubrey: So, when your leg moved, it yanked on the string and registered another step.

Michael: That just seems really-- Wouldn't it create friction in one leg and then you just end up walking in a circle? 

Aubrey: [laughs] I like the idea that it's like a boat with one oar.

Michael: Is this where we get the phrase "pulling my leg"? 

Aubrey: I don't think so. 

Michael: Because pedometers were such a joke. 

Aubrey: So, pedometers were and are famously inaccurate. They're much better than they used to be, but they're still not great. The iPhone pedometer, which is one of the most widely used currently, is estimated to undercount your steps by about 21%.

Michael: So, if I get 10,000 steps on my phone, I've actually gotten 12,000 steps, roughly.

Aubrey: Potentially. 

Michael: Okay. 

Aubrey: The other ones that you wear at your waistband or your wrist, the sort of more mechanical pedometers, have been reported to capture things like typing as taking steps if you have it on your wrist. There is one review that I read where the guy was like, “I've written one paragraph of this story, and in that time, my pedometer has logged 54 steps.” And I was like, “Okay.” 

Michael: I'm like a championship fidgeter. I bounce my leg up and down. So, I don't know if that means I'd have 80,000 steps at the end of every day.

Aubrey: So, pedometers have been around for quite some time, but they don't really catch on. They're sort of around. Jefferson's tinkering around with them. They sort of get a little bit more of a start in the 20th century. But for the most part, they are known to sort of nerdy quantifier types. Part of the reason the pedometers don't catch on is that for decades, selling a pedometer meant explaining what a pedometer does and why you would want one and what you would use it for. It would be like selling something today that was like, “We'll count how many breaths you take.” 

Michael: Yeah, this number would not be meaningful to me whatsoever. 

Aubrey: At this point, I am transporting you, Michael, to Tokyo in 1963. [makes flashback circle sounds] [laughs] Good job, Garth. Oh, wait, I think I'm Garth. 

Michael: Yeah, I think you're the Garth. 

Aubrey: It was my Halloween costume. 

Michael: It was my Halloween costume. [Aubrey laughs] Fat Garth. Remember that. 

Aubrey: I really love that we have us saying that in stereo.

Michael: Fat Garth. 

Aubrey: So, we're in 1963. Tokyo is getting ready to host the 1964 Olympics. So, there are a lot of conversations about health and fitness and sports in the air. There is a professor and researcher in Tokyo who is worried about the rising numbers of fat people in Japan. This doctor, Dr. Hatano, leads a research team that determines that Japanese people at the time walked an average of 3,000-5,000 steps per day. His research team figured out that if they went up to 10,000 steps per day, all of those average Japanese citizens could burn a few hundred calories each day. And they added that up to a projected weight loss of 20 kg or 44 pounds in one year.

Michael: Oh, this is the thing we've come across so many times.

Aubrey: Calories in, calories out, baby. 

Michael: You take very small adjustments to food intake or exercise, and then you extrapolate those out over the year. And then you're like, “Oh, switching from 12-ounce coffee to 8-ounce coffee will make you lose 7 pounds over the course of a year,” whatever.

Aubrey: Totally. 

Michael: This doesn't take into account that people compensate in other ways. 

Aubrey: Yeah. This is based on a fundamental calculation that a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories leads to a loss of 1 pound of fat. That has been fully debunked. 

Michael: Right. Because your body adjusts its temperature, hunger, and fullness cues. All kinds of other systems kick in basically to get you to eat and expend the same number of calories every day.

Aubrey: So, this research starts sort of making the rounds in the medical community in Japan. And the head of one of Tokyo's biggest clinics is talking to an engineer about this idea that he has that people need to increase the number of steps that they're taking each day. That engineer works for a clock maker called Yamasa Tokei Keiki. Two years later, that company in 1965 introduces something called the Manpo-Kei, which literally translates to the 10,000 step-meter. That's a number that they are lifting directly from this calories in calories out research. 

Michael: So, basically, it's a number pulled out of thin air.

Aubrey: Exactly.

Michael: People are getting 2,000 to 3,000 steps and they're like, “If you were getting 10,000, this is how much weight you would lose.” 

Aubrey: And there's some speculation and debate about why they chose that 10,000 steps number in particular. Some folks say it's from the research. Some folks say that it's sort of a number of significance in Japanese language and culture. It's a number that pops up quite a bit. Other folks say that the character for 10,000 in Japanese kind of looks like a person walking. And the product catches on in a big way. They start releasing different models of the 10,000 steps meter. In 1991, they release a sort of-- they call it their discrete pedometer. It's a tie tack pedometer. 

Michael: What's that mean? 

Aubrey: It's a pedometer in a tie tack. 

Michael: What's a tie tack? 

Aubrey: Oh, a tie tack is the little pin that people will wear on their tie to fasten the skinny part to the fatter part. 

Michael: There's a name for that? I just called it the little tie clip thing. I've never owned one. 

Aubrey: I was not anticipating teaching you a thing about menswear.

Michael: Yeah, I just called it the Poindexter clip because that's always-- in Revenge of the Nerds, they always have those on their ties. 

Aubrey: Oh, that's a tie bar. 

Michael: Wait, there's two different things now? There's the tie clip and the tie— Okay, spin off podcast, spin off podcast. Pick this up later. 

Aubrey: Stay tuned for later in the episode when Mike learns what a Double Windsor is. 

Michael: I also do not-- I know you're joking, but I do not know what the fuck that is. 

Aubrey: [laughs] I think I might have tied more neckties on myself than you have tied on yourself. 

Michael: You have seen the way that I dress and my physical and personal appearance. So, this is not a surprise to you. 

Aubrey: So, they described this tie tack pedometer as being “for the salary man, who does not want the world to see his pedometer."

Michael: So, it's a pedometer on your tie and they think that's going to work? 

Aubrey: Yeah, totally.

Michael: So, just like how much it bounces up and down, I guess, basically. 

Aubrey: All of these are just measuring either movement or acceleration. Those are sort of the two models. 

Michael: Yeah, this does seem like it wouldn't be very accurate. 

Aubrey: So, this 10,000 steps meter gets introduced in 1965. Fitbits aren't introduced until 2009. So, what I wanted to figure out is what's happening with pedometers in the intervening years? So, I started looking around, and first I found an article from The Guardian. It's an odd one. The tone of the article is basically like, “What's this pedometer everybody keeps talking about? I keep hearing about pedometers. What are they?” I am going to send you a quote from this piece in The Guardian just because it's fun little ephemera. 

Michael: It says, "Foot power is enjoying a renaissance thanks to an addictive gadget called a pedometer. Worn on the hip and looking like a digital stopwatch, pedometers are rapidly making the transition from an underground craze sported solely by fitness geeks to the must have gizmo for those in the know. Robbie Williams, Caprice, and Cameron Diaz are a few of the celebrities who are fans of the pedometer.” 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: Robbie Williams? 

Aubrey: It's a celebrity item. The name of this piece is, “Stars join the fitness craze that makes every step count.”

Michael: What? 

Aubrey: And it appears in the society section. 

Michael: [in a singing tone] I'm loving pedometers instead. 

Aubrey: [laughs] Yes. 

Michael: Doesn't work. Too many syllables.

Aubrey: More karaoke. 

Michael: Who is Caprice? 

Aubrey: I don't know. 

Michael: If they're famous in Britain, they're in a boy band. That's the only option.

Aubrey: Then, I started looking at pedometer media from 2004 because I'm like, “Everyone's talking about a pedometer. What's going on?” And, Michael, I find a bunch of articles about McDonald's. Oh, this is where shit gets weird.

Michael: It already got weird when you told me that the tie thing has a name.

Aubrey: So, in 2004, McDonald's launches something called their Go Active Happy Meal for adults. 

Michael: Oh, what? Okay.

Aubrey: The meal consists of a bottle of water, an entrée salad, which McDonald's had just introduced the year before, and what they're calling a Stepometer. 

Michael: Oh. 

Aubrey: It's a clip-on pedometer. During this promotion, they distribute 15 million Stepometers. 

Michael: How much was the Happy Meal? 

Aubrey: $4.99. 

Michael: How the fuck is this Fitbit so cheap? It must have cost nothing to produce. 

Aubrey: It's not a Fitbit, buddy. This is the mechanical cheapity-cheap. 

Michael: Is it just a little digital readout on your hip that just says a number basically?

Aubrey: It's a little calculator screen. They market the Adult Happy Meal, the Go Active Meal, in an endorsement deal with Oprah's personal trainer, Bob Green. 

Michael: Fuck off. You knew Oprah had to be involved somehow. 

Aubrey: Baby, this is not the last we're going to hear of Oprah. 

Michael: Incredible. 

Aubrey: Basically, McDonald's sales had been flagging for a while, and much of that was attributed to consumers starting to associate McDonald's with ill health and particularly with being fat. And it's the height of obesity epidemic “media.” This is right when all of that is really kicking off. 

Michael: Yeah. When does Super Size Me come out? This is in that era, right? 

Aubrey: Why would you spoil it this way, Michael? 

Michael: Oh, shit. Okay, okay. 

Aubrey: It's a direct fucking response--

Michael: No way. 

Aubrey: --to Super Size Me coming out. 

Michael: Yeah. This was peak blame fast food for everything. 

Aubrey: Yeah. So, 2004 is the year that Super Size Me comes out. 

Michael: Okay. 

Aubrey: It is also the year that McDonald's introduces these pedometers. At this time, their CEO has some very public health issues. They had just brought their old CEO out of retirement to bring back their sort of flagging sales. They brought him back from retirement, and he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 60.

Michael: Oh, wow, okay. Yeah, then it's a perfect little juxtaposition of like, “Fast food is unhealthy. CEO of fast-food company dies of a heart attack,” basically. 

Aubrey: Well, then, they name a new CEO who's 43, and two weeks later, that CEO was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Michael: Holy shit. Okay. 

Aubrey: Then, the president of McDonald's US division does a little proactive press and starts just telling reporters, “FYI, my health is great. I live a very active life with my kids. I work out four times a week. I've been doing it for 20 years. Don't worry about me.” 

Michael: Getting my steps.

Aubrey: “That's not going to happen to me.” What a gross response. 

Michael: It's also very funny because it assumes that the CEO of McDonald's eats McDonald's with any-- [crosstalk] 

Aubrey: Sure, yes, correct. 

Michael: Absolutely do not. 

Aubrey: Correct. I would say that those are much more referenda on the health of the lives of CEOs than McDonald's eaters. 

Michael: Yeah. This is the health effect of golf and leather backseats. 

Aubrey: So, the reviews of the Stepometer from this era are brutal, and they are hilarious. 

Michael: I can't believe something that was $4.99 for a pedometer and a salad and a water, did not work great. 

Aubrey: So, I found two reviews. I'm going to send you quotes from each of them. This is from Unique Reviews. 

Michael: Unique Reviews. “As anyone who's ever finished middle school knows, good intentions do not always result in good outcomes. The Hindenburg, the Salem witch trials, and the Titanic are just examples of this maxim. Unfortunately, McDonald's Go Active Stepometer is another item to add to the list. While we appreciate that they have good reason to want to change public opinion about McDonald's, we're not sure that this is the best way to go about doing it.”

Aubrey: The Hindenburg.

Michael: I questioned whether the Salem witch trials had good intentions behind them, but that's maybe not here nor there. 

Aubrey: Famously just looking out for everybody, Cotton Mather.

Michael: Who can fault the people drowning women? You know, they were trying. 

Aubrey: Here is a quote from Outside Magazine. 

Michael: It says, “These things are cheapo. [laughs] The insides rattled about, and we could tell when it counted steps by listening to it. Brush against it and as far as it knew, you'd walked five steps. Nevertheless, never having worn a pedometer for any length of time, it was rather addictive to see the number going up. We can see how this would be a carrot to beginners and inactive people.”

Aubrey: That's a good example of the more forgiving press around, is there's a set of baked in assumptions, which is like, “Anybody who eats at McDonald's must need a pedometer, must not be walking around. Therefore, maybe this is a net gain." But the press and media coverage at the time is incredibly clear eyed about what's going on here. The New York Times calls it, “McDonald's latest attempt to recast itself as a purveyor of healthy food in the face of criticism that fast food companies have contributed to the increasing number of obese people.” Around this time, McDonald's also changes their chicken nuggets to be all white meat. 

Michael: I remember that.

Aubrey: This is also around the time that they phase out super sizing. And even though kind of all of the media at the time is like, “This is pretty craven," it works. McDonald's sales increase even with these very sort of cosmetic changes to its menu. 

Michael: But this is all completely an effort at marketing. It's like the oil company's rebranding is like, "Beyond Petroleum." I mean, we've talked about this before, but it also is weird that the fast food companies got all of the blame for American eating habits when Applebee's is just as bad as McDonald's but the fast casual sector doesn't have the same kind of stigma. 

Aubrey: No, this is the famous thing about the highest calorie dish you can get in the US at a chain restaurant is the pasta primavera at Cheesecake Factory. The veggie pasta is the most caloric thing you can find. Once this sort of McDonald's “Stepometer” is introduced, it really does boost the profile of pedometers, and there starts to be more media coverage about the utility of pedometers and all of that kind of stuff. That leads to the 2009 introduction of the Fitbit. 2009 is also when we got the Wii Fit.

Michael: Oh, yeah-- [crosstalk] 

Aubrey: Remember that fucking thing?

Michael: --Exercise moves with your grandma with the little controller. 

Aubrey: Totally. It would make a little avatar of you based on your height and weight, and I just get a round little avatar, just a little butterball. 

Michael: Just a bunch of circles. Just a little snowman.

Aubrey: Totally. Absolutely a snowman. In 2015, the Apple Watch is introduced, and that's really when the 10,000 steps thing takes off. You've got this sort of prestige luxury kind of item that is an Apple Watch. One of their big marketing tools is fill in your circles on your Apple Watch. And this was a way in to get people to think about this thing that they had never really considered as being any kind of necessity, now becomes a daily essential thing during this period of the 2010s. 

Michael: And also, I guess it's linked to the rise of smartphones too, that you didn't have this internet-enabled device with you at all times. Then all of a sudden, you did, and it's like, well, it has the capacity to do this. So, you might as well turn it on. 

Aubrey: Do you even need to turn it on anymore? I think it might just come preactivated. 

Michael: Wait, really? 

Aubrey: I think so. 

Michael: Wait, let me-- I'm checking my phone app. I have the fitness app. 

Aubrey: The health one with a little heart in it? That's where mine lives. 

Michael: I can set my daily move goal. Lightly, moderately, highly, okay. Stay motivated with fitness notifications. Absolutely not. Don't allow. Fuck that. 

Aubrey: Never. 

Michael: Oh, yeah, God Jesus Christ. 

Aubrey: It's been tracking your steps, no? 

Michael: Yeah, fuck. It says 8037 steps. 

Aubrey: Yeah, there you go. 

Michael: Because I went jogging this morning. 

Aubrey: Yeah. 

Michael: What the fuck? I feel violated and surveilled, but also, I have to do 2000 more steps to get it over 10,000.

Aubrey: [laughs] Well, that puts you back in league with our old pal, Oprah Winfrey. In 2016, the year after the Apple Watch is introduced, Oprah writes in O magazine that she is pledging to get 10,000 steps a day because she wants to feel strong and fit. Which, again, sure, fine. But also, when Oprah writes about a thing that she's doing, it's never just like, “Hey, this one lady told us about this one thing she does.”

Michael: Yeah. If Oprah says literally anything, just a billion dollars goes to whatever. If she's like, “I bought a rhododendron,” then the Rhododendron industry quintuples in size immediately. 

Aubrey: That same year, 2016, we get another wave of pedometer news, and this time, it's about kids' pedometers.

Michael: Oh, okay.

Aubrey: To explain, I have just sent you a YouTube link.

Michael: This is footage of a child counting to 10,000. Just one, two, three--

Aubrey: Let me know when you're ready.

Video clip: At McDonald's, you can have fun with your food and have fun with steps. With the Step-iT Activity band in your McDonald's Happy Meal. 

Michael: So, this is like animated-- it starts out as animated ad of a pirate ship and a bunch of slices of apple pushing a chicken nugget off the plank like they're murdering the chicken nugget. 

Aubrey: And then, a shark jumps up. 

Michael: And then, a shark jumps up and then as the nugget falls into the shark's mouth, the shark turns into a real non-animated child, and the child eats the chicken nugget. It's like, "You can have Step-iT. You can step your steps."

Aubrey: Step your steps. 

Michael: I've forgotten how it ends already. 

Aubrey: So, it's 2016. We're seeing these ads for McDonald's pedometers for kids, and that is because, surprise, surprise, McDonald's has gotten a lot more bad press in the intervening year. Particularly post like 2010, they get a big wave of stuff. There's an artist that does something called the Happy Meal Project in which that artist left a McDonald's burger and fries out on a counter to see how long it would take to decay and reported that it didn't grow mold after a full six months. It's the same.

Michael: Yeah, I remember that.

Aubrey: In 2010, San Francisco actually bans any meal with a toy being sold in the city unless it's served with fruits and vegetables and the entire meal is less than 600 calories. This is widely understood to be a direct hit at McDonald's. In 2010, also, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sues McDonald's to stop using toys to market Happy Meals, saying the practice is sort of manipulative. In their filings, they call it, “A highly sophisticated scheme to use the bait of toys to exploit children's developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority.” 

Michael: I don't think that literally anything should be marketed to kids, so I'm fine with any restriction that stops a company from speaking to children, I'm cool with this shit. 

Aubrey: One year later, in 2011, full-page ads appear across the country in major US newspapers saying that Happy Meals should be banned altogether because they, "contribute to childhood obesity.” So, again, all of this anti-McDonald sentiment is bolstered by McDonald's sort of believed role in the creation of fat kids. It's like, “We've got all these fat kids. Who do we blame? Let's blame McDonald's.”

Michael: This is the problem with the putting obesity at the center of all of our fucking health stuff. We just talk about food and how the food is bad, and kids should get more exercise.

Aubrey: Around this same time, McDonald's has been the target of a few different campaigns to get them to do things differently. One of them is a long-term campaign by evangelicals to get them to block porn on their public Wi-Fi networks.

Michael: Wait, really?

Aubrey: Absolutely, and McDonald's does it well. They have also been targets of a campaign to end the McDonald's school nutrition program.

Michael: Oh, God. That's a bleak oxymoron. 

Aubrey: Is it not, Michael? 

Michael: What is this? 

Aubrey: McDonald's was sending speakers and materials to schools to talk about nutrition, like McDonald's branded materials. 

Michael: Guys, no, no, no. 

Aubrey: Their main speaker is John Cisna, who was the Iowa teacher who said that he lost weight eating McDonald's. 

Michael: Oh, he was the Jared from Subway of McDonald's?

Aubrey: Uh-huh. He was the guy who was sort of the counterpoint in a bunch of the media around Super Size Me

Michael: Oh, chances of libertarianism, moderate to high. 

Aubrey: John Cisna is on McDonald's payroll as a brand ambassador. There's some media of McDonald's being like, “Look, John books his own events, and we support him in that. If there's stuff we can send him, we do that.” And then the reporter goes to John, and he's like, “Oh, McDonald's emails me and tells me what events to be at, when, where, and they make the arrangements. And then, I just show.” 

Michael: I don't like this. I don't like corporations being given access to our kids. I think it's really bad. 

Aubrey: Yeah. This is around the time that they phase out that program, but just like there's enough ambient pressure.

Michael: Jesus Christ. 

Aubrey: Around this same time, unsurprisingly, once again, McDonald's profits are down, and they've been down since 2013. So, they're in year three of a decline in their profits. In the UK, they're at their lowest point in the chain's UK history.

Michael: That's because they didn't get the Caprice endorsement. They didn't get Caprice from Three Directions. 

Aubrey: The other thing that is happening at this time, Michael, Michael-- 

Michael: Aubrey.

Aubrey: --is this is the height of the Fight for $15 campaign in the US. This is a campaign to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That campaign specifically focused on fast food workers, and McDonald's employees were consistently front and center. That's where we start getting all those statistics about the average age of a fast food worker is 36. Dispelling these myths about, "These are just jobs for teenagers," or whatever. "No one's really living on it." McDonald's is getting bad press all over the place, and their sales are down. It's not great. 

Michael: They were only paying that brand ambassador $9 an hour. I'm sure that's what it was really about. 

Aubrey: Their next choice was to introduce these Step-iT pedometers for kids, and very quickly, the whole thing goes south. A Facebook post pops up and gets shared a hundred thousand times very quickly of a mom showing pictures of her toddler wearing the pedometer and then taking it off and showing this kind of gnarly burn welt thing. 

Michael: Oh, because in the ad, the little pedometer was like a watch. It's like a little mini-Apple Watch thing, but it's in pastel kid colors. 

Aubrey: Totally. It is made to have the appearance of like an Apple Watch or a Samsung watch or something. It's just a digital pedometer with a little calculator screen, but they have a sticker around the rest of it to make it look like it's apps or whatever. This Facebook post makes the rounds. It starts to garner media. McDonald says publicly that they have gotten 70 reports of skin irritation or burns to children. So, they voluntarily recall all 32 million of these kid's pedometers.

Michael: Oh, wow. Holy shit. 

Aubrey: It's a huge, weird story. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: As with the 2004 pedometer, the 2016 kid's pedometer, is an absolute piece of shit product. 

Michael: Yeah, it must be. 

Aubrey: This is the one where the CNET reviewer does a review and says that they got 54 steps from typing, but then they took a 500-step walk, and only 40 of those steps registered on the McDonald's kid's pedometer. 

Michael: So, they should have said that it was a keystroke monitor and not a walking monitor and get the kids typing more.

Aubrey: The Ringer published a review of the Step-iT pedometer titled A Very Serious Review of McDonald's Flesh Burning Fitness Tracker. 

Michael: Nice. 

Aubrey: That was the head. The deck was just, "I'm loving it."

Michael: Nice. Did anyone adjust the number for kids? Were kids also supposed to get 10,000 steps a day because their little steps are shorter or something? 

Aubrey: They're actually supposed to get more than adults. There's some specific research on this, on sort of how many steps should adults get. How many steps should seniors get, that's a different number. So, let's dig in on the data. 

Michael: Let's do it. 

Aubrey: The research is really clear on this subject. There's not a single number that folks have arrived at. But what we know for sure is 10,000 steps is a fine number. It's not a bad number, but it isn't specifically tied to a decreased risk of mortality or specific health conditions. Basically, in a bunch of the research and literature they say, “Look, 10,000 steps is a pretty good shorthand for something that we know for sure," which is that people should be getting a certain number of minutes, about 150 minutes of what's called MVPA, moderate to vigorous physical activity. 

Michael: Oh, yeah, of course. 

Aubrey: Each week. So, 10,000 steps a day gets you there with a little space to spare. All of the research is basically just like, “Look, this only matters in so far as it gets you to that goal.” For adults under 60, most of the research shows that 6,000 to 8,000 steps per day is the sweet spot. Anything over 7,500 steps a day, your benefit sort of plateau. 

Michael: And are these based on anything? Are these based on the RCTs or are they just these big cohort studies? 

Aubrey: These are big cohort studies and they are looking much more at what's the scatterplot of people's actual existing activity patterns.

Michael: So, these are just associations basically? 

Aubrey: Totally. 

Michael: It's not if you get more steps, you're healthier. It could be if you're healthier you get more steps. 

Aubrey: Absolutely. So, we can't say, as a result of getting 6,000 to 8,000 steps a day alone, you will therefore have all of these other health outcomes. We can say there's a correlation between people who get 6,000 to 8,000 steps a day and people who have fewer sort of risk factors for stroke and heart disease, number of things. 

Michael: Right. So, it's kind of meaningless.

Aubrey: A little bit. 

Michael: I just tend to think all this stuff is bullshit. 

Aubrey: It's all still a shorthand to get at just physical activity.

Michael: Yeah. It seems it's fairly uncontroversial to say that some level of physical activity regularly is very good for you. But then, there's just this weird fucking project to try to define specifics and yeah, I just don't understand why. I guess on an individual psychological level, I get why people would want to aim for a number, but I don't understand why the sort of the public health apparatus is aiding in that effort. 

Aubrey: I suspect that this comes from the pretty deep running understanding of something's better than nothing. If people are grabbing onto this thing, we might as well say, "Yeah, that's a good thing to do."

Michael: I've gotten so radicalized--

Aubrey: You really have.

Michael: --researching the show, it's just these correlations, and you can try to control for stuff fine, but we just don't really know. I don't understand this project of trying to define the correct number of steps for the population as a whole when the population has 330 million fucking people in it. People have totally different needs and abilities and stuff. What is the point of this? 

Aubrey: It is a deep tail wagging the dog moment, where it's marketing came up with 10,000 steps, and now there are all these researchers being like, “Why is 10,000 steps the number?" or "Why is 10,000 steps not the number?” Where I'm just like, “This is the wrong order for things to go in.” 

Michael: Right. And even if were able to define that, okay, you should get exactly 6100 steps per day, then we're just back to an arbitrary number that isn't going to apply to very many individuals because different individuals have different needs. It's already pretty banal to say that like, “Yeah, try to get activity regularly.” 

Aubrey: I will say even within the steps literature, there is a significant debate about the number of steps versus the pace of those steps.

Michael: Oh, yeah, of course.

Aubrey: Right. People are like, “Well, if you take them really slow, do they really count? How much does it matter?” There's some researchers who argue that you need to get a pace of 100 steps per minute minimum, and that's how you get the benefit. All of this driving further and further into granularity with this kind of stuff. 

Michael: I am a brisk walker. So, maybe my 8,000 steps count as more. I have nervous little legs, just like a little Chihuahua.

Aubrey: I really love that your response to finding out your own step count is a case study in how weird this can make people.

Michael: I don't like it. 

Aubrey: You're just like, “I don't like knowing it. I should have had more than that. But also, I don't care. But yes, I do. But shut up. You're not my real dad.” 

Michael: I know, exactly. 


Michael: We've done this live on the show me, finding out that my phone knows my fucking steps, and now I feel totally surveilled. 

Aubrey: Right, and also, it does kind of take over your brain.

Michael: Yeah. I've gone through denial, bargaining.

Aubrey: I will say there are a bunch of really hilarious, genuine little influencers and cottage industries and whatever, about how to juke the stats on your pedometer. 

Michael: Why? What is wrong with people? 

Aubrey: Totally. Well, this is the thing that I told you about my nephew just getting one and just shaking his wrist and figuring out that did it. There was also a video that I found where they attached a pedometer to an electric drill.

Michael: Oh, just [makes drilling sounds] and you're like 40,000 steps?

Aubrey: [makes drilling sounds] Yeah, totally. 

Michael: You're just cheating yourself at that point. No one else cares about this. Unless it's for a workplace wellness nightmare program, why do this? 

Aubrey: You have never had stronger high school vice principal energy than when you just said you're only cheating--

Michael: I'm not mad. I'm just disappointed with [Aubrey laughs] everyone on the internet today.

Aubrey: Here's where things I think get interesting in the research. The thing that matters really the most, and there does seem to be quite a bit of consensus around this, is consistency. Moving around and moving around regularly and getting into the habit of moving around for all good things. It appears that the most important ingredient in consistency, regardless of how long you spend doing activity, the most important thing is regular activity. It appears that the most important ingredient in consistency, it's liking the thing. Do you like it? Do you like moving around in the way that you're moving around? You're going to do it more regularly. That's the thing that matters for your health is if you're doing something consistently, which happens when you do something fun that you like. To wit, me and my rowing machine and also swimming. Those are two of my favorite things. I am a water baby. 

Michael: And walking your little dog. Walking your little gentleman.

Aubrey: Little gentlemen. [crosstalk] And to wit, you riding your bike around. 

Michael: I like riding my little bike. I like shouting at drivers. 

Aubrey: Do you have other faves? I feel mine are rowing machine, swimming, hiking. 

Michael: I live in Seattle. You lose your visa if you don't go hiking at least once a week. So, there's that. But then, yeah, I like going rock climbing because it's social, but it's not competitive. 

Aubrey: Oh, that's a good one. 

Michael: Yeah, that's the thing is it's only going to work if you like it and look forward to it. 

Aubrey: I have a very strong memory. I think part of the reason rowing machine makes my list is that I have a very strong memory of getting on my dad's rowing machine in the 80s when I was a kid and being like, “What's he doing with this thing? What's it all about?” I got on it and started doing what I had seen him do on the rowing machine. And I was like, “This isn't exercise. This is just a ride. He's just like doing a ride.”

Michael: Oh, so that's what it does for you. 

Aubrey: It just felt like a game. It felt like you're just going wee back and forth on this sliding seat. 

Michael: And that's ultimately kind of arbitrary too. Whatever you find fun is due to deep childhood needs or my own weird anti-competitive stuff, it's just going to be different for different people. It seems the only thing you can say from the research is that try to get exercise and do something you like. 

Aubrey: Absolutely. 

Michael: That's about it. 

Aubrey: I will say I am similarly in the camp of individual only, but mostly because as a fat person, moving in front of other people is a goddamn minefield.

Michael: Yeah. People are the fucking worst.

Aubrey: Right. So, I am also in camp solo. If friends are like, “We're all going to go for a hike,” I'm like, “Have fun.” 

Michael: Yeah. 

Aubrey: I'll go on a separate one by myself. 

Michael: Have you had shitty things happen when you've gone on hikes with other people? 

Aubrey: Absolutely. Not like hugely shitty, but just enough to make you feel out of place. 

Michael: Just makes you aware of it.

Aubrey: Yeah, a lot of checking, like, “Are you doing okay?” Like, a lot of that where I'm just all little reminders. Do you know what I mean? Nothing terrible. Nothing the worst ever. But no one's checking in with anybody else. It's just a fat lady. 

Michael: Yeah. You want to be at home in your body, and I feel that takes you out of the experience if people--

Aubrey: Totally. It reminds you that other people are seeing you first through your body. 

Michael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Aubrey: And also, just other people being like, “Good job.” You know what I mean? Where you're just like, “I also don't need that. Pretend like I don't exist like you do with everybody else.” Just quietly resent that I have my headphones in.

Michael: Oh, yeah, judge me for that.

Aubrey: Pick a weird hiking beef with me.

Michael: You should have one of those fucking Bluetooth speakers when you go hiking, and then everyone will hate you because of that.

Aubrey: They won't hate me because I have a Bluetooth speaker. They'll hate me because I'm using it to play LMFAO at top volume.

Michael: Those are the only times in nature that I genuinely consider committing murder. I'm like, “Well someone got a fucking Bluetooth speaker out here.” 

Aubrey: As we're talking about consistency in movement and enjoyment of movement, there is a little bit of evidence that shows that the actual process of counting your steps may reduce or eliminate that enjoyment. I'm sending you a brick, and I apologize that it is such a brick.

Michael: Oh, that's fine. You don't have to apologize.

Aubrey: There you go.

Michael: All right. This one's pretty big, Aubrey.

Aubrey: It's big. I know. I'm sorry. 

Michael: You know what? You owe me an apology. 

Aubrey: I do. I did already.

Michael: 10,000 words per day.

Aubrey: For your health. 

Michael: For my health, for my brain health. “When we know that our walking habits are being recorded, for instance, we're more likely to walk, but we also take less pleasure in strolling. Duke University professor, Jordan Etkin, argued that it's because the act of measuring the output makes enjoyable activities feel more like work, which reduces their enjoyment.

To test the hypothesis, Etkin coordinated six studies involving tracking various activities, such as reading and walking. In one, 95, college students were asked to choose whether or not to wear a pedometer all day. Some could see the step count, while others could not. At the end of the day, they were asked to report how much they enjoyed walking. Those who could see the steps ticking up throughout the day did end up walking more but reported less enjoyment. The results suggest, Etkin wrote, that measurement reduced enjoyment even among people who chose to be measured. Which is to say, even when we think we want answers, the results might make us crabby.” I relate because I just found out about my 8,000 steps, and I'm livid.

Aubrey: Totally, and your brain latches onto it in a way that's really annoying and doesn't feel good. What I have noticed about myself, this is entirely anecdotal, is that when I got really fixated on 10,000 steps a day, I felt absolute garbage every day that I fell short. It wasn't like the 10,000 steps days, I felt really good about myself for doing a good thing. I felt good. But that was sort of the baseline. If I fell short of that baseline, I felt like I was a failure, and I felt like my health was at stake. Again, if you like tracking, if you feel it's working for you, great, go for it. 

Michael: Yeah. There are some people that love it.

Aubrey: Go to town. But if it feels bad to you, that might be worth listening to. It might be worth finding something that feels good to you.

Michael: The key is setting goals that you can always achieve.

Aubrey: I'm going to give the final word on 10,000 steps to Mike Brannon, who is the national lead for physical activity at Public Health England, who says, “There's no health guidance that exists to back it.” 

Michael: Booyah. Boom.

Aubrey: 10,000 steps. You don't need it. 

Michael: I'm so haunted by learning my steps today, Aubrey. 

Aubrey: I'm so sorry. I think you can turn it off if you want to turn it off. 

Michael: I would like to turn it off. 

Aubrey: You don't have to wear that--

Michael: I don't want to wear it. 

Aubrey: --stone around your neck. Only got 8,000 steps today. It's bullshit. 

Michael: Everyone knows that I haven't done cocaine, and I got 8,000 steps. I don't know what to do with this. 

Aubrey: How much coke did you get offered?

Michael: Dude, people were emailing me, and I'm like, “Please do not offer me illegal drugs,” in writing on Twitter DMs or whatever where who fucking knows who else can read that. Please do not do this. 

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