Wearable devices that monitor physical well-being and fitness are incredibly popular. The number sold is expected to increase from 17.7 million in 2014 to more than 40 million this year.1
Personally, I use the Jawbone UP24 and have found it very useful for keeping track of my daily steps and sleep patterns. Most of these devices come set with a default goal of 10,000 steps a day, which is a number commonly associated with a basic or moderate level of fitness.
For instance, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare recommends walking 8,000 to 10,000 steps daily, while the UK National Obesity Forum recommends 7,000 to 10,000 daily steps to stay moderately active.
Recent research showed that wearing a fitness-tracking wristband (the FitBit One) did help overweight postmenopausal women increase their activity levels by nearly 40 minutes (and 789 steps) a week.2 Wearing a pedometer did not have such an effect.
However, if you’re committed to making your 10,000 steps a day, does that mean you’re on your way to becoming physically fit?
Walking 10,000 Daily Steps Is a Required Movement
Should you strive for 10,000 daily steps? Yes! I view this as a basic requirement for optimal health, like drinking adequate amounts of water each day. Your body is designed for frequent movement and many researchers are now starting to reemphasize the importance of walking.
According to Katy Bowman, a scientist and author of the book: Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement:3
“Walking is a superfood. It’s the defining movement of a human.”
For example, one study found that walking for two miles a day or more can cut your chances of hospitalization from a severe episode of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by about half.4
Another study found that daily walking reduced the risk of stroke in men over the age of 60. 5 Walking for at least an hour or two could cut a man’s stroke risk by as much as one-third, and it didn’t matter how brisk the pace was. Taking a three-hour long walk each day slashed the risk by two-thirds.
The elderly and those struggling with chronic disease that prevents them from engaging in more strenuous fitness regimens would also do well to consider moving around more. While walking is often underestimated, studies show you can reap significant health benefits from it.
However, as far as fitness goes, walking will only help you to get physically fit if you’re starting out very out of shape. Even then, as you get fitter, you will need to add exercise to your lifestyle, such as high-intensity interval training and strength training, to actually get fit.
Walking Is Not a Form of Exercise…
I don't view walking as an exercise at all but rather as an essential movement that we all require. The older you get the more important it becomes. You can be very athletically fit, but if you are sitting all day with minimal walking or movement, your health will most definitely suffer.
I personally walk about two hours a day or about 55 miles per week. I do this barefoot without a shirt on at the beach and so am able to get my sun exposure and read two or three books a week. Multi-tasking like this allows me to easily justify the time investment. Most don't realize that walking burns the same amount of calories as running, it just takes longer.
However, I also do some form of "exercise" every day. This includes strength training twice a week, HIIT twice a week with weights or on an elliptical machine, and a light 10-minute workout three times a week on recovery days.
But since walking isn't exactly exercise, you can do it everyday without needing any recovery days for your body to repair and regenerate; it doesn't tear down your body much, so it doesn’t require recovery time.
The downside is that walking won't build your body up much either, unless, as mentioned, you are very unfit. For those who are fit, walking is a phenomenal maintenance activity that will allow you to be healthy into old age. Just be sure you have someone knowledgeable seriously analyze your posture.
I see many people walking on the beach and most of the elderly have terrible posture. They have lost much of their thoracic extension and are bent forward shuffling along. An excellent book that can help in this area is Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living by Kathleen Porter.
Many People Don’t Get Close to 10,000 Steps a Day
Taking 10,000 daily steps means you’ve walked about five miles or 9 kilometers. Many people do not get close to reaching this goal, which is why fitness trackers can be so useful. According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), the average person only walks between 3,000 and 4,000 steps per day.6
I recommend using a pedometer, or better yet, one of the newer wearable fitness trackers, to find out how far you normally walk. At first, you may be surprised to realize just how little you move each day. Tracking your steps can also show you how simple and seemingly minor changes to the way you move around at work can add up.
You can break up your daily steps into any size increments that work for you. You might walk for one hour in the early morning, 30 minutes during your lunch hour and another hour in the evening. Or you might enjoy taking shorter 20-minute walks throughout your day.
Research even shows getting up and walking around for two minutes out of every hour can increase your lifespan by 33 percent, compared to those who do not.7
Dr. James Levine, co-director of the Mayo Clinic and the Arizona State University Obesity Initiative, and author of the book Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, actually recommends that you be up and moving for at least 10 minutes out of every hour.
Regular Daily Walking Helps to Counteract the Effects of Too Much Sitting
Part of what makes a goal of 10,000 steps a day so important is that it gets you up and out of your chair. Sitting for too long has been found to increase your risk of death from virtually all health problems, from type 2 diabetes and heart disease to cancer and all-cause mortality.
For example, sitting for more than eight hours a day is associated with a 90 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.8 The average American actually spends nine to 10 hours of their day sitting, and certain occupations, such as telecommunications employees, spend an average of 12 hours sitting each day.9
For many years, exercise was promoted as the solution to this largely sedentary lifestyle. But while exercise, especially short bursts of high-intensity activity, is crucial to optimal health, research suggests it can’t counteract the effects of too much sitting.
In fact, chronic sitting has a mortality rate similar to smoking.10 The simplest way to avoid these negative health effects is to strive to sit less – ideally for less than three hours a day. A standing desk can help with this, as can frequent walking.
Dr. Levine’s investigations show that when you’ve been sitting for a long period of time and then get up, a number of molecular cascades occur. For example, within 90 seconds of standing up, the muscular and cellular systems that process blood sugar, triglycerides, and cholesterol—which are mediated by insulin—are activated.
All of these molecular effects are activated simply by carrying your own bodyweight. These cellular mechanisms are also responsible for pushing fuel into your cells and, if done regularly, will radically decrease your risk of diabetes and obesity. In short, at the molecular level, your body was designed to be active and on the move all day long.
Walking Is Good Medicine
Walking may not boost your cardiovascular fitness or muscle strength significantly the way more intense exercise does, but it does offer other significant benefits. Taking a walk during your lunch hour can have a significant impact on your mood and help reduce work-related stresses, for instance.11
Walking was also found to improve quality of life for depressed middle-aged women. Those who averaged at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise or just over 3.25 hours of walking each week reported feeling more energized and more social at their three-year follow up. They also reported feeling less pain.12 For many people, fitting in 10,000 steps a day takes a concerted effort to move around more. You might try, for instance:
How to Kick Your Walking Up a Notch
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to be one of the best forms of exercise in terms of both effectiveness and efficiency. It involves brief periods of intense activity followed by periods of rest. Ordinary walking does not qualify as a high-intensity workout, but it can be tweaked into one. For the last decade, Dr. Hiroshi Nose and colleagues at the Shinshu University Graduate School of Medicine in Matsumoto, Japan, have developed walking programs for the elderly.
In light of the benefits associated with HIIT, Dr. Nose created a regimen of fast walking and gentle strolling, to see if this kind of program might provide greater fitness benefits than walking at a steady pace. The program consisted of repeated intervals of three minutes of fast walking, aiming for an exertion level of about six or seven on a scale of one to 10, followed by three minutes of slow strolling. The results turned out to be very promising. As reported by the New York Times:13
“In their original experiment, the results of which were published in 2007, walkers between the ages of 44 and 78 completed five sets of intervals, for a total of 30 minutes of walking at least three times a week. A separate group of older volunteers walked at a continuous, moderate pace, equivalent to about a 4 on the same exertion scale. After five months, the fitness and health of the older, moderate group had barely improved. The interval walkers, however, significantly improved aerobic fitness, leg strength and blood-pressure readings.”
In December 2014, the team published a follow-up report on the participants, noting that 70 percent were still adhering to the walking program two years after the study ended, and the health benefits remained stable.14
Walking Barefoot Adds Another Element for Good Health
If you can walk in a natural area, such as grass or on the beach, kick off your shoes while doing so. Walking barefoot on the sand or grass has additional benefits that go beyond that of walking, as this allows your body to absorb free electrons from the Earth through the soles of your feet, a practice known as grounding. These electrons have powerful antioxidant effects that can protect your body from inflammation and its many well-documented health consequences. For example, one scientific review published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health concluded that grounding (walking barefoot on the earth) could improve a number of health conditions, including the following:15
To recap, strive to get up and get moving often throughout your day; 10,000 steps is a good number to aim for and should be done in addition to your exercise program. While I do recommend fitness trackers, don’t let a lack of one keep you from moving. A pedometer can be equally effective for a fraction of the cost. For instance, researchers found that simply wearing a pedometer daily for 12 weeks led to a significant decrease in sitting time, and a significant increase in physical activity among the participants, who lost an average of 2.5 pounds each.16
And, as mentioned, pay attention to proper posture while you walk. Kathleen Porter’s Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living is an excellent starting point if you feel your posture could use some improvement.