Christopher Hundley is a parent and a writer who writes about business, technology, and other topics of interest.
Should You Walk 10,000 or 20,000 Steps a Day?
By now, we've all seen or heard about the benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day. And while the concept of walking 10,000 steps a day initially began in the 1960s as a marketing ploy for pedometers in Japan, doing so comes with a multitude of benefits including weight loss, improved cardiovascular performance and sleep quality, and decreased risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, among others.
In recent years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has sounded the alarm about the dire long-term risks of a sedentary lifestyle and implemented several public health initiatives as a response. "10,000 steps a day" has been the centerpiece of current fitness trackers, such as Fitbit. And untold numbers of personal fitness vlogs, news stories, and articles have reinforced 10,000 steps as a goal for which we should all strive.
Now, there is no universal agreement as to whether people should strive to walk 10,000 steps a day. There is research that suggests that the number to accrue most if not all of the above health benefits are lower, and that walking that many more steps or more can be harmful under certain circumstances. I've read those articles and even a couple of the studies that were cited. And while I don't question the scientific methods, I do question the editorial slant of many of the articles that mentioned them. Most of the articles made a case for moderation, which is understandable on one level.
Many people feel discouraged about not being able to hit their fitness goals in general and might be discouraged the first few times they fail to hit 10,000 steps. And 10,000 steps, truthfully, is not aligned with everyone's fitness goals or lifestyle. But on another level, I feel that encouraging folks to settle for a level less than their target when they struggle does a considerable disservice towards what should be a fitness goal for everyone; mental resilience. You fail one day, you get up and try again the next. You hit that goal, and then you set another higher one.
So why 20,000 steps a day?
My Experience and Tips
Some physicians believe that walking more than 10,000 steps a day can help one accrue even more health benefits. There are articles about "20,000 steps a day" challenges I had seen in passing. For me, these were secondary reasons. I've always written professionally in some form or fashion since undergrad and my sedentary lifestyle has always led me to put on weight.
I enjoy running, so some months the pounds would come down, but invariably they'd come back. Last year, I made some significant progress with weight loss and planned to run a half marathon and full marathon this year. Still, a nightmarish end-of-the-year series of personal crises ending in early 2020 with the pandemic led to some disruption and weight gain.
In recent months, my wife gifted me with a fitness tracker. I spent a week doing 10,000 steps and decided to double it on my own. I did so without reading about any of the benefits or drawbacks—just to see if I could do it. And while it proved challenging, I found it both achievable and beneficial. I started trying to do 20,000 steps per day, but with two kids and occasional work-related travel (even in this era of COVID-19), I had to settle for 20,000 a week on average.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the past few months, based on averaging 20,000 steps a day each week. These tips work just as well when trying to develop or increase your walking routine in general.
- Start slowly, especially if you are carrying extra weight, or have underlying health conditions. There's nothing wrong with working your way up to 5,000 steps, 10,000 steps, or 20,000 steps, over time. In fact, that can give your body time to adjust and mitigate the risk of injury. If you carry extra weight or have underlying health conditions, you may want to check with your primary care physician for any guidance before beginning a new fitness routine.
- Stretch. Walking may not seem much of an exercise, but it is a full-body exercise indeed. And when you walk uphill, walk while carrying extra weight, or start putting serious numbers on the board, your muscles will get tight. Without proper stretching, you'll be more prone to injury, and injuries will definitely prevent you from sticking to your routine.
- Stay hydrated. This stands to reason, but it's worth saying anyway. People, myself included, have been guilty of underestimating walking as exercise and minimizing the importance of staying hydrated. Drink plenty of water at regular intervals to avoid adverse health consequences.
- Weightlift. Weightlifting, I've found, is crucial. It helps me switch up my exercise routine, as walking can get boring. It can help you strengthen supportive muscle groups. And the regular goal setting involved in weightlifting can help increase your mental resilience. I've found it's easier for me to knock out that last set of steps when I've, say, hit a new bench press weight. After that, walking a bit more seems super easy!
Meeting Your Goal
- Plan ahead. Calendar out your week so that you know ahead of time if you're going to have long periods of sedentary time, drives, meetings, etc. The days you don't, work more steps, say 25,000, to help ensure you're where you need to be.
- Walk rather than drive where feasible. If you live in the city, there are a lot of opportunities to walk places. Take full advantage. For folks who live in the suburbs, driving is necessary to get a lot of things done. But not everything. Reconsider whether you can walk to your doctor's office or the dry cleaners next time you head out to run errands.
- Walk/run in place while watching TV. I'm not the biggest proponent of walking while watching television, but it can help some people get over the hump. If you're doing this, I'd strongly recommend doing this inside or on a treadmill, as even pre-COVID, I definitely had people engrossed by their phone walk directly into me on the street or in parks. Given the need to socially distance, be aware that you must keep aware of people around you if you choose to walk in the park while binge-watching Parks and Recreation.
- Walk in place while doing routine tasks. You can eke out more steps than you think if you walk in place while washing dishes, preparing meals, or folding clothes—steps that can take you over your daily threshold.
- Take the stairs. Stairs provided the added benefit of walking uphill. And now, when socially distancing in elevators is difficult, stairs can be an even more appealing option.
- Break up steps with the occasional run. Running can help you get more steps in quicker. Make sure you space out your runs to give your body to recover, especially if you are running outside on concrete. Hour-long runs with long cooldown walks can help you knock out the lion's share of your steps for the day.
- Become an early riser. Waking up early is helpful. In the summer, it's hard and potentially dangerous to do a lot of outside walking in the afternoon. Plus, when you get your walking out of the way early, it helps buoy your day with an accomplishment.
- Join a low-cost gym as a backup plan. It rains. And it snows. You can, of course, walk 20,000 steps in your home each day. But a lot of folks, like myself, prefer the social aspects of working out with other people. The treadmill can be a decent substitute, and some gyms like Planet Fitness are very inexpensive. You can also buy a treadmill, but if you lack either the cash or space, a low-cost gym can help ensure you stick to your routine, rain or shine.
- Be forgiving. There are some days you're going to get to 30,000 or even 40,000 steps, and some days you barely break 2,000. Life happens. The most important thing is to stick with it over time. Do your best, and if you have, don't beat yourself up too much if you're looking at 13,000 or 17,000 as your weekly average on Saturday night. Get up the next day and start walking. Transitioning to an active lifestyle—or a more active one—is a marathon, not a sprint. Go as slow as you need. Just don't quit.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Christopher Hundley