Setting Exercise Goals

It’s no secret that most Americans don’t get enough exercise. This lack of physical activity can have negative consequences for anyone, but for people with diabetes — Type 1 or Type 2 — exercise is particularly important, since it helps the body use insulin (either the body’s own, or injected insulin) more efficiently. But how much exercise is enough? That question has always been more difficult to answer than whether people get enough of it.


For years, popular wisdom has held that walking 10,000 steps each day is a good exercise goal for most people. But as a New York magazine article from earlier this month explains, that number isn’t based on any scientific studies that found it to be optimal. In fact, it caught on because of how one of the first mass-market pedometers — the Japanese man-po-kei — was marketed in the 1960s. Its name translates roughly to “10,000-step meter” and was chosen both because it sounds catchy in Japanese, and because the number 10,000 is considered meaningful in Japanese culture. The pedometer became a huge success around the time of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

As the article points out, not only was the number 10,000 chosen for commercial rather than scientific reasons, but the lifestyle it was meant to apply to was very different from that of the United States in 2015. The average Japanese in 1964 was supplied with 2,632 calories each day, while the average American in 2011 was supplied with 3,639. That difference — about 1,000 calories — would take about 20,000 steps for an averge-sized person to burn.

So how many steps should you take each day? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer — it depends on how healthy you are, how much you eat, and a number of other factors. But experts quoted in the article agree that, as a general rule, more is better. Chances are, you’ll be healthier if you get more exercise than you do right now.

There’s danger, however, in setting your exercise goals too high. As we noted in a 2011 post on short bouts of exercise, setting overly ambitious exercise goals can make people feel intimidated and lead them to exercise less than if they took a more flexible approach. For many people, the best exercise goal is simply to move or work out whenever possible. For others, however, a more concrete goal — a certain number of steps, or a certain amount of time set aside for exercises — is necessary to provide the structure and motivation for exercise.

How do you feel about setting walking or exercise goals — do specific or ambitious goals motivate or intimidate you? Do you find it more helpful to set a schedule-based goal, such as walking at a certain time every day, than to set an accomplishment-based goal, such as taking 10,000 steps? Have you ever adjusted your exercise routine based on health-based goals, such as lowering your HbA1c level or reducing your blood pressure? Leave a comment below!

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  • Catherine

    have small-fiber sensory polyneuropathy in my hands and feet. Regular exercise after my diabetes diagnosis in 2010 lead to a 60 lb. weight loss and a return to my high school weight. In Nov. 2013 I purchased an elliptical machine to exercise for my blood sugar. Unfortunately, I used the machine incorrectly. Instead of keeping my feet flat on the pedals, I aggressively pushed off, repeatedly toe jamming doing 5 to 7 miles a day. The fact that my big toes veer off to the sides from severe bunions exacerbated the problem by putting undue pressure on the sides of my big toes and balls of my feet, where a major nerve runs. By Feb. 2014, the outer halves of my big toes were numb. I did not realize it was a warning sign and could morph into pain. When I asked my neurologist in May 2014 whether my elliptical machine was the cause of my newfound toe numbness and the odd pattern of toe numbness, she was unconcerned and noncommittal. She thought it could even be my diabetic neuropathy progressing –despite my excellent A1c of 5.6. I was her “best diabetes patient.” Thinking the numbness meant the nerves were dead and I could do no further damage, I maintained my workouts. In Sept. 2014, my big toes and balls of my feet suddenly became hypersensitive to pressure and the simple act of walking. I had, and continue to have, burning, electric shocks and stabbing sensations when I walk, especially in the big toes and balls of my feet. Belatedly, I Googled “toe numbness and elliptical,” and learned numb toes are not uncommon in healthy folks who use ellipticals. Recently my symptoms spread to encompass 2/3 of each foot. I have started soaking my feet in cold water to stop the burning. I no longer exercise. I am basically bedridden and housebound. When I do walk, it is on my heels and the sides of my feet. Last week I finally purchased a wheelchair to get to doctors’ appointments. I am devastated. I feel like my life is over. I’m only 68 and loved to be active. I fear a future of frailty and chronic or worst of all, progressive pain and disability. What happened to me was a perfect storm of failures on the part of my doctors and myself. My doctors only ever applauded my exercise regime. Exercise is good, but the wrong kind of exercise for a neuropathy patient with already damaged nerves is dangerous. Tingling, numbness or pain from exercise are signs that something is wrong and must be investigated. The irony that I unknowingly caused compression/trauma-induced neuropathy while trying to control my blood sugar and be healthy does not escape me. If this letter informs just one doctor or prevents just one neuropathy patient from doing to themselves what I did, perhaps some good can come from my personal tragedy.