If you've recently invested in a fitness tracker of some description, you're probably familiar with nagging messages reminding you to take 10,000 steps per day. But where does this ballpark figure come from, and is it an accurate measure of how much activity we need to get through each day to stay healthy?

As Benjamin Pineros at Techly reports, the 10,000 step figure is actually the result of a marketing campaign dating back to 1964. Riding the wave of a sporting craze triggered by the Tokyo Olympics of that year, a company called Yamasa Tokei launched a pedometer called Manpokei. Translated literally, it means "the 10,000 step meter", and thus the default step goal was set.

There's certainly nothing wrong with walking 10,000 steps every day: it's a lot better for you than the 3,000 to 4,000 average, for a start, and it should lead to you covering about 8 km (5 miles) and staying active for up to 2.5 hours a day. But you shouldn't treat the target as a scientifically proven goal, or think that all you have to do to stay healthy is reach it.

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recommends a target of 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day, while the UK National Obesity Forum says that anything up to 10,000 steps makes you a moderately active person. It's perhaps the roundness of the number that's helped it to catch on rather than something a little lower.

And it's all relative anyway. "If you run three times a week, you're not going to get fitter by walking 10,000 steps," diet and fitness expert Laura Williams told the BBC. "You're already quite fit. You're going to need to do more to get fitter than someone who is chronically unfit and inactive. For them, walking 5,000 or 10,000 steps a day will improve their fitness."

So while apps from the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone might push for that 10,000 figure, choose something that's tailored to your own circumstances. And even if you are managing to consistently hit that target, it's important to combine it with a healthy diet and make sure your heart rate is getting sufficiently pushed while you clock up those steps.

"The current recommendations for adults are to accumulate between 2.5 hours and 5 hours of moderate physical activity per week, which can be broken down to 30 to 60 minutes activity a day on five days of the week," says Stephen Parnis of the Australian Medical Association.

That's probably a better target than 10,000 steps each day… though it's worth repeating that all those steps won't do you any harm at all.