Dr. Mike Esco has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and has over 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.
Walking Is for Everyone!
Unless you have a physical limitation, walking is a great low-impact exercise. It is the simplest and least expensive form of physical activity. It can be done virtually anyplace. You can walk alone, with a partner, or in a group. It’s much less expensive compared to typical forms of exercise. It is also one of the healthiest activities you can do because of its role in improving cardiovascular fitness and reducing body weight. That is why people who walk a lot have lower rates of chronic disease and obesity. For those with Type 2 Diabetes, it can help lower blood sugar. It stimulates healthy bone development, which lowers the risk of osteoporosis. It also lowers stress and enhances well-being. Walking even improves balance and coordination.
Establishing a walking program is the perfect way to get started on the road toward enhanced fitness. You can start with just a few minutes a day and gradually progress toward 30 minutes or more. Walking in multiple brief bouts throughout the day is a great method for accumulating physical activity.
Your walking program will work best if you use a physical activity tracker to determine how many steps per day you walk. Physical activity trackers are fairly new. These devices are great motivational tools and basically come in three forms:
- Pedometers are small devices worn on the waistband or belt region at the hip. With some pedometers, you can just clip and go. Others require you to measure your stride length to more accurately determine the total distance covered in miles or kilometers. Be sure to read the instructions that come with your pedometer that describe how to do this. It’s easy!
- Wearable physical activity trackers are typically in the form of a wristband or clip-on device. These types of physical activity trackers are becoming very popular. What I like about many of these devices is they have the ability to form “walking groups” that consist of other people with similar devices. This allows you to have a healthy competition with friends and family members.
- Smartphone applications can be downloaded to your personal device. There are hundreds of downloadable walking applications. From the applications I’ve tested, they seemed to be pretty accurate. The only issue is that your phone must be on you at all times. Type in “pedometers” or “activity tracker” on your phone and see how many applications come up.
Each of these options counts the number of steps you take when you walk. Keep in mind that some of these are not very accurate. To test them, simply walk a given distance and mentally count the number of steps you take. Then, once you take a certain number, say 500 steps, compare it to the activity tracker you are using. No device will be 100% perfect all of the time. But you should be within a range of about 5 to 10%. I have seen some activity trackers that over-predict steps by the thousands. So be sure to give yours a test trial.
Also, they differ in cost. Some are not very expensive ranging from free to around $20 or so, while others can cost upwards of several hundred dollars. The device you pick really depends on what you are after. The expensive comes when other features are provided, such as measuring calories expended, heart rate monitoring, or sleep quality. It is really important for you to do some research to find out the device that is best for you. While additional features may be nice, a simple tracker that just counts steps is completely fine.
How Many Steps Per Day Should You Take?
This question has been researched extensively. The answer depends on your overall activity goal. In other words, how “active” do you want to be? A group of well-respected experts who have done a lot of research with pedometers, established the cut-points of physical activity based on steps per day. They present the following physical activity categories:
- Under 5,000 steps per day is considered “sedentary”. If a person is below this cut-point, they are more than likely sitting too much. The risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes are dramatically heightened at this level.
- Between 5,000 to 7,499 steps per day is considered “low active”. The average American fits into this category. Though this level is better than being sedentary, having a daily step count that falls into this category still elevates the risk of chronic diseases.
- Between 7,500 to 9,999 steps per day is considered “somewhat active”. A person who falls within this category may be doing better than the typical person, but there is still room for improvement.
- Between 10,000 and 12,499 steps per day is considered “active”. Here is the physical activity level at which the risk of diseases is reduced. This is a great initial target for most people in the other three categories above.
- 12,500 steps per day or more is considered “highly active”. Individuals who fall within this category typically display a healthy level of body composition and cardiovascular health.
Here is a reference to the research paper where this information came from: Tudor-Locke C, Bassett DR: How many steps/day are enough? Preliminary pedometer indices for public health. Sports Med. 2004, 34: 1-8
How Should You Start?
The important thing to focus on is increasing your daily step count so you will be more physically active than you currently are. But, ease into it. There are about 2,000 steps in one mile. Walking 10,000 steps per day equals approximately 5 miles. So, if you suddenly increase your step count by several thousand steps that may be the equivalent of an additional 2-3 miles. Yes, that is a great thing and I definitely want to encourage that. However, if you are not accustomed to that amount of walking, you could injure yourself during the first few weeks. Hurting your knee, hip, or ankle will only set you back. Instead, ease into it! Also, you don't have to get all of your steps in at one time. Yes, you can accumulate physical activity in small bouts of walking throughout the day. In fact, there are no different health benefits between getting all of your steps in at once compared to accumulating the steps in small bouts. Both approaches are great! That is excellent news for those of us who are busy and do not have time to exercise for a continuous 30 minutes to an hour.
Each week try to increase the average number of steps you take each day by 10% from the previous week. Set an initial goal to achieve a specific number of steps per day that is above what you are currently doing. I recommend that most healthy individuals should strive to achieve the “highly active” category by targeting at least 12,500 steps per day.
Start with a typical week to establish a baseline. During your first week of the program, don’t do any extra activity. Just live out your "normal" level of physical activity. But, wear an activity tracker every day and measure the number of steps you take. When finished with the week, add the number of steps from each day throughout the week. Then, divide by 7 (to get the average step count per day).
For example, lets say you had the following total steps for each day:
Monday = 4,500 steps; Tuesday = 5,200 steps; Wednesday = 3,700 steps; Thursday = 5,600 steps; Friday = 4,400 steps; Saturday = 6,100 steps; Sunday = 5,500 steps.
Do the following calculation:
4,500 + 5,200 + 3,700 + 5,600 + 4,400 + 6,100 + 5,500 = 35,000.
Next, divide the total amount by 7 (days in the week). So, 35,000 / 7 = 5,000.
In this example, this person averages 5,000 steps per day.
After doing your personal self-assessment, compare your numbers to the physical activity categories mentioned above. How do you rate?
What's Your Goal?
After determining your baseline number of steps per day, it's time to establish a goal. Personally, I recommend a goal of 12,500 steps per day for most people. Whatever your goal, don’t try to obtain this level immediately. Instead, increase your daily steps per day each week by 5-10% from the previous week’s daily average. For example, if you find that during the first week you average 3,000 steps per day, then the next week shoot for 3,300 steps per day (a 10% increase). For the week after that, you should target 3,630 steps per day. Continue increasing by 5-10% increments until you reach your goal. Use the table below to help you determine the number of weeks it will take you to reach your targeted number of steps per day.
What Is a Good "Steps Per Day" Goal?
Wear a physical activity tracker throughout your day. This will keep you motivated to add steps whenever you can. You will be surprised at how many steps you can accumulate during your day by taking small walk breaks before or after lunch, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking an additional “lap” around the grocery store before checking out, stepping away from your desk and walking down the hallway and back a few times, etc. Be creative!
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.
Debbie Lawson from Cincinnati, OH on August 24, 2017:
Thank you for the good suggestions, Mike. I appreciate. I did have a treadmill at my last address, but did not bring it with me when I moved. I left the treadmill behind after it became a little noisy. I love walking outdoors. Makes you feel much better in all ways. Have a great day.
Mike Esco (author) from Alabama on August 24, 2017:
Thank you for the comment, DLayne. You certainly need to avoid any areas in which you feel uncomfortable. Always walk during the day (unless it is too hot/humid). Are there any public places nearby, such as a park, school or mall, where you can accumulate steps? Alternatively, you could consider purchasing a treadmill for your home. Or, you'd be amazed at how many steps you can get in by simply walking more inside of your home. See this research study from the University of Tennessee: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21760553 (copy and paste if the link doesn't show). The participants of the study accumulated over 2,000 steps (i.e., over 1 mile) by walking in place during the commercial breaks of a 1-hour TV program. I recommend making out a list of possible places were can you get in more steps. As my article states, be creative! You can do it! And feel free to ask any questions. Good luck!
Debbie Lawson from Cincinnati, OH on August 23, 2017:
I love to take walks outdoors, so I could easily get in the 10,000 or more steps per day. Perhaps, I even do that at home. My problem is that I moved to a new location about 11 months ago, and even though the area is attractive, many of the people who walk around here cause me to have fear and concern - esp. with all that goes on these days.