The 10,000 Step Myth and What We Really Need to Do to Stay Active During the Pandemic
Have you heard about “Quarantine 15?”
It is the new “Freshman 15” and refers to the average of 15 pounds that many people are bemoaning they have gained during all the various “stay at home” orders around the country in response to the pandemic.
And since many gyms will continue to be closed for the foreseeable future, a large number of my fellow boomers are now looking for the activity trackers they either got themselves or received as holiday and birthday gifts for “when I start walking” to lose these extra pounds.
The Dreaded Number
When they do start to utilize these activity trackers, many will see a flashing “10,000,” referring to the generally accepted goal of 10,000 steps a day for getting and staying in shape.
And, if you’re like most people, you probably just assume that health and fitness experts arrived at this holy grail of walking requirement after many years of rigorous scientific research. If not, then some manufacturers might have used 8,255 or others 13,911.
Being an even number, there also is something mathematically attractive about 10,000 – plus, it’s easy to remember.
This idea of walking a specific number of steps has become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that in the recent Netflix film, The Two Popes, one of the protagonists is wearing an activity tracker that keeps reminding him to “keep walking, keep walking.”
The Story Behind “10,000”
Before I go any further, here’s an advance spoiler alert: If you would prefer to hold to the idea that 10,000 steps-a-day is a magical number that will cause you to lose weight, look 10 years younger, cure your arthritis and give you an edge in pickleball, then you may want to click-through to another 60 & Me blog.
Why? Because the truth, and I know this may surprise you (it did me), is that the 10,000-step-target was nothing more than a marketing gimmick created during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games to sell a pedometer called Manpo-kei, which is literally translated as “10,000 step-meter.”
The marketing program was obviously quite successful, and the number became part of popular culture.
And to add insult to injury, a recent study from Brigham Young University suggests that when it comes to preventing weight gain, no number of steps alone will do the trick.
In this specific study, researchers wanted to find out if progressively exceeding 10,000 steps a day would make a difference in weight and fat gain.
What they found was that it didn’t matter if subjects in the study even walked 15,000 steps a day – they still gained weight. In the end, exercise alone is not always the best way to either maintain or lose weight.
This is especially true if you “reward” yourself with a donut after exercise by telling yourself that the exercise cancelled out the calories (it likely did not).
So, Is There Any Benefit to Walking All Those Steps?
The great news, however, is that while walking alone may not be the most effective way to get rid of your “Quarantine 15,” it provides a wide range of emotional and physical health benefits for boomer women.
These include improved cardiovascular health along with a reduced risk of developing high blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, a lower risk of developing diabetes, lower blood sugar levels, and better overall fitness.
Other benefits identified include relieving back pain, reducing anxiety, helping protect against dementia, colon cancer, and depression as well as an overall improvement in quality of life.
Walking also can decrease the risk of heart disease for postmenopausal women who walk a mile a day by more than 80 percent compared to those who didn’t walk. What I found especially interesting is that walking brings the same benefits to heart health as running!
Walking also is a great way to help prevent becoming a member of what is known as the “walking disabled.” These are boomers who gradually lose the ability to walk for more than a couple of blocks.
This lack of mobility can contribute to a loss of independence, isolation, poorer health, decreased balance (which can contribute to increased falls) and an overall decline in quality of life. If that were not enough, walking can also increase our life expectancy.
More Good News!
And there is even more good news to help get you motivated and committed to walking. The first is that you probably don’t need to walk as much as you may have believed to reap these benefits (so you can throw that excuse out the window).
The second is that physical activity – such as walking – is cumulative. What this means is that you don’t need to go from no walking to an hour or even 30 minutes at a stretch to begin with. You can start with, let’s say, 15 minutes and then work your way up to longer walks as you become increasingly fitter.
And, as your endurance increases, you can also work on walking faster, which can further enhance the benefits of walking.
If Not 10,000 – How Many?
So, let’s start with how many steps we, as boomer women, should be walking a day. It has been suggested that “mature” women who walked just 4,400 steps a day had longer lifespans compared to less active women.
For most of us, that equates to around 45 minutes of brisk walking, which, I believe, is very doable for most of us in the course of a day. For women who walked more, their overall mortality rate continued to drop until they reached a daily step count of 7,500, which is where the benefits seem to plateau in terms of mortality.
In other words, while walking more than 7,500 steps continues to bring many health benefits, a further increase in lifespan does not seem to be one of them. The best news here is that even an increase of just 2,000 steps a day will give us some health benefits.
If you are wondering how to accumulate that many steps without taking a long walk, you need to keep in mind that you can break it up over the course of the day.
There are also some great tricks for getting more steps in such as walking around during commercial breaks while you watch television, making more trips to do your chores and errands, parking at the far end of the parking lot, and taking the stairs when you can.
You don’t need to do it all at once to get the benefits. Just target walking every day for around 30 minutes total, and you should clock in those extra 2,000 steps with no problem.
Step It Up!
How quickly you walk can impact how effective your waking will be in terms of health benefits. While any walking is better than no walking, as you build endurance you should aim for having at least some of your walk be at a faster pace than the rest.
This will increase the cardiovascular benefit. And, also keep in mind that people who can walk faster tend to have a lower mortality rate than slower walkers. So, step it up!
Finally, Don’t Forget to Fuel Those Walks Correctly
It’s really important to remember that you can quickly undo the benefits of walking – or other physical activity – by not eating correctly. Exercise is only one half of the equation for getting and staying healthy.
Giving your body the nutrients it needs and in the right amounts is the other. The foundation for your “walking diet” should, of course, be plant-based meals that you cook at home to give you more control over what you’re eating and how it is prepared.
Then, you can add different foods to help give you the energy and endurance you will need for whatever type of walks you will be doing.
If you want to take longer walks, for example, I would recommend you fuel up with foods that will give you lasting energy such as whole grains, nuts, and healthy fats like avocados.
If you are more in the habit of taking several walks throughout the day, then you may want to consider having a banana or a piece of fruit before you head out.
And, it goes without saying, always stay hydrated, especially if you are in a warmer climate or season. To be sure I always have water handy, I have a sports bottle carrier that ties around my waist like a belt. This way, I can take a sip of water whenever I want.
Would you describe yourself as a “walker”? If so, how much and how often do you walk? How did you get started? How do you stay motivated? If not, is there something about walking that isn’t appealing to you? What would get you interested in it? Please join the conversation.