For years, the pedometer has enjoyed widespread popularity amid health, fitness and wellness entities and enthusiasts due to its low cost, relative ease of use, straightforward feedback, and clear-cut message to users: “10,000 steps a day” for good health. Moreover, the advent of the pedometer has undoubtedly raised people’s awareness on the importance of walking for overall good health.
Interestingly enough, today’s wearable devices are far more advanced than the stand-alone pedometer, yet the 10,000 steps a day mantra has remained pretty consistent.
But, is hitting that coveted 10,000 steps a day mark really boosting people’s health and fitness levels or simply their own egos and inherent desires to ‘win’.
A close family friend once boasted of the clever tactics he used to regularly clock in 10,000 steps a day as measured by his pedometer.
His incentive was simple — Money.
His employer provided him and other workers with a basic pedometer and incentivized $1 for every 10,000 steps they took in a day up to a maximum of $60 per month. I recall laughing out loud as he held the pedometer and rapidly swung his arm in real-time to gain a quick 100 ‘steps’. He even bragged about using the spinning power of his ceiling fan to support achievement of his daily goal.
Sadly, just three months after he shared these amusing stories of personal triumph, he died prematurely of a massive heart attack.
He was only 55 years old.
In the days following his death, I couldn’t help but recall our prior conversation and wonder if his death could have somehow been prevented if he’d had more of a vested interest in walking for good health as opposed to mere monetary gain.
To be honest, I’m not quite so sure.
Indeed, a range of research studies have shown that some people are more concerned about manipulating their activity trackers to claim rewards or incentives and even to improve their self esteem with little regard for the betterment of their health.
To gain some personal insights, I carried out a little experiment of my own.
As an avid user of the activity tracking components of my Apple Watch and one who also loves a good challenge, I set out to meet my “Move” goal every day for a full month. It’s not that I don’t adequately ‘move’ every day; it’s simply that the Apple Watch doesn’t factor in my rigorous strength training routine due to the limited locomotion involved.
In case you aren’t familiar with the Apple Watch, the Move goal is accessible on the “Activity” app of the device and basically refers to the number of ‘active’ calories burned daily based on your activity history. The Move goal doesn’t include your total daily calories, as the latter is based on a combination of your active calories and estimated metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn calories).
To reach my daily Move goal and, ultimately, conquer the challenge, I in essence had to perform a lot of cardiovascular (cardio) exercises (running, cycling, and elliptical training), often to the detriment of my strength training workouts.
Given time constraints, I was constantly faced with the decision to lift or not to lift; oftentimes dismissing the latter in an effort to ‘move’ more. This is a huge flaw of most activity trackers, primarily when it comes to tracking daily activities among people like myself who regularly lift weights. Still, I took on the challenge just to see whether or not it would alter my activity patterns (and ego) for the better.
Did I move more?
But, undergoing this self-inflicted physical challenge mentally took all the enjoyment out of physical activity. It also yielded noticeable muscle loss, which is a common result of excessive cardio exercise.
Although my personal challenge wasn’t necessarily a “10,000 steps a day challenge” per se, this type of challenge is one that many people face when shooting for a daily goal of 10,000 steps.
I can’t tell you how often I see the “10000steps” hashtag across the social media pages of folks who are totally oblivious to the fact that not all steps are equal. I’m sorry, but this is true. Walking 10,000 steps at a leisure pace on flat terrain does not physically equate to the same amount of steps taken during stair climbing or even during hill climbing activities like hiking, backpacking and even incline walking.
While 10,000 steps a day is a nice starting point that may very well encourage people to get up and get moving, it isn’t always a true testament to one’s health.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. You can significantly improve your health by regularly engaging in leisure walking and any other leisure time activities involving locomotion. Still, it’s important to understand that the benefits may be dampened if these activities aren’t adequately challenging your body or even if they aren’t sporadically changed.
Believe it or not, your muscles have memory cells that become unresponsive if they are not occasionally shocked with a change in routine. Therefore, in spite of the potential benefits of 10,000 daily steps, performing the same ole activities day in and day out will eventually lead to a plateauing effect.
And yes, this applies to those who continuously walk in circles with vigorous arm swinging motions in an effort to get more step cred.
While 10,000 steps a day is a nice starting point that may very well encourage people to get up and get moving, it isn’t always a true testament to one’s health, as is evidenced by my old friend who passed away. Additionally, 10,000 steps a day does not account for the benefits of strength training and other highly effective forms of exercise that don’t involve significant locomotion.
Although I run regularly and cycle for long distances, for me neither of these workouts offer the intensity of a good strength training bout. Yet, I get in at most 100-200 steps while lifting weights, sometimes after in excess of an hour.
This is quite frustrating and at times has made me want to give up on activity tracking all together.
It’s amazing how even someone with my level of health knowledge and expertise can fall victim to all the psychological hoopla associated with goal achievement by way of activity trackers.
Funny enough, someone just recently asked me: “Dr. Nina, how many steps do you get in on an average day?” I laughed for a second and then said: “I generally get in anywhere between 20,000-25,000 steps a day on my running days but on the days I lift intensely, I’m lucky to even meet a minimum of 10,000 daily steps!”
So, does this make me any less healthy or fit?
And, again, I’m not saying that one should abandon the desirable 10,000 steps a day goal. I’m just emphasizing the importance of considering your individual health and fitness goals because, in many ways, 10,000 steps a day can be meaningless if your exercise program isn’t well-rounded.
Plain and simple!
So, the next time you clock in 10,000 daily steps and give yourself a huge pat on the back, ask yourself what is it really for?
Is that achievement really changing the way you think and behave when it comes to your overall health and fitness or are you simply swinging your arm about for a meaningless reward?
If weight loss is your goal, are you losing any?
At the end of the day, is 10,000 steps really making a difference in the way you feel both physically and mentally?
If you can’t reasonably answer YES to any of these questions, you might want to shoot for a more meaningful goal.
Personally, once I reached that Move goal I had so eagerly worked for, I mentally felt great and my ego was successfully boosted—That is for all of 5 minutes, as I gleefully glanced at my electronic trophy on the face of my IPhone.
Achieving that goal took an unnecessary toll on my body and even made it somewhat difficult to get back into the strength training routine that I had willingly compromised. But, today I feel a sense of pride on those days that I barely hit my Move goal or even make it to 10,000 steps.
On these days, I know I put in a hell of a strength training workout or even got in some much needed rest, and for that I couldn’t be happier. I look great and feel fabulous and that’s really all that matters.