When it comes to wearable fitness trackers, we’ve sure come a long way since the original clip-on Fitbit. Today’s fitness watches are not just fashionable but impressively jam-packed with modern features, from sleep and heart-rate tracking to menstrual cycle planning and beyond.
But whether you’ve chosen to sport a simple step counter or you’ve been tempted by a high-tech running watch, the wearables on the market all have this thing in common: they’re programmed with a default fitness goal of 10,000 steps a day.
Now, as a boundless ball of energy who can barely sit still for a half-hour TV show, I often hit the 10,000-step mark by mid-morning, just from fidgeting alone. But I admit that I’m an outlier, even among my antsier-than-average running friends. For anyone who does not identify as a sports-savvy athlete, I appreciate that 10,000 steps can seem…well, daunting.
Good news, though, if you’re striving to start your fitness journey but feel intimidated by all those digits: It turns out that 10,000 steps, while a sexy, clean-sounding number, isn’t a gold standard that was ever backed by science.
Rather, say physical-activity researchers who studied the phenomenon, it was a marketing ploy all along.
What’s the skinny on the step goal? According to the research team, the so-called magic number originates from 1965, when a Japanese company developed a pedometer called the Manpo-kei: literally, “10,000-step meter.” Not only did the clever phrasing slip off the tongue, but the Japanese character for 10,000 supposedly resembles a man walking.
It’s easy to see how the 10,000-step figure stuck in our collective subconsciousness. But what’s the real scientific story when it comes to improving our heart health?
For the more sedentary person, this science-based statistic should sound a lot less scary: a 2017 special report published by Harvard Medical School found that walking for just 21 minutes per day – a total of 2.5 hours per week – can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30 percent. What’s more, noted the report, “This do-anywhere, no-equipment-required activity has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and cancer, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and keep you mentally sharp.”
Walking For Heart Health
As for how many steps you’ll cover in 21 minutes, that depends on your pace and stride length, though it’ll almost certainly be fewer than 10,000. But who cares? While there is evidence to suggest that the more steps you take, the greater your health benefits will be, science shows that there’s no magic step number – and if you want the biggest boost to your heart health, just walk for a little bit longer.
All this means is that not only has walking for exercise suddenly become a lot less intimidating; it’s also become a lot less expensive – you can ditch the fancy fitness watch (if you want to) and still reap the benefits by walking for time, not for steps.
Still feeling hesitant to hit the pavement? Walking for heart health isn’t the only reason to start moving. Here are some other ways walking can improve your health, both physically and psychologically.
Walking can help reduce the risk of cancer. According to a prospective study led by the American Cancer Society, all levels of walking – even those below the recommended guidelines of 2.5 hours per week – were associated with a lower risk of developing cancers including breast and colon.
Walking can help with weight management. “Walking burns calories, so you’re less likely to store excess calories as fat,” explains Dave Candy, P.T., D.P.T., A.T.C., a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer. “Additionally, during low intensity aerobic activities such as walking, your body can actually mobilize and use stored body fat as energy, whereas higher-intensity activities rely almost exclusively on energy from carbohydrates,” he says.
Walking can help protect the joints. “Walking helps to keep the joints of the hips, knees, and feet well-lubricated, which can help with pain prevention or reduction,” says Stacey Roberts, P.T., a physical therapist who specializes in musculoskeletal health. That’s because, when we move, our tissues replace and renew synovial fluid that both nourishes and removes waste from our joints. “When we don’t move our joints regularly, this fluid can become stagnant and thins out, so that leads to joints becoming stiffer and more uncomfortable,” Roberts says.
Walking can help boost immune function. In a large-scale study on walking by Harvard Medical School, people who walked for at least 20 minutes per day, at least 5 days per week, reported 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised one day per week or fewer.
Walking can help boost mood. “Walking encourages our brain to release endorphins, a neurotransmitter that boosts our mental health – the feel-good chemicals,” explains Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “It can also help you ruminate less on negative or toxic thoughts – and a study showed that those who walk through nature had less activity in brain regions associated with mental illness,” she says.
Walking can help reduce stress. “Walking also reduces the secretion of cortisol, which is the body’s stress hormone, leading to lower experiences of stress, anxiety, and depression,” says Cynthia Shaw, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in existential therapy. One study from the University of Michigan found that even one 20-minute walk can significantly drop cortisol levels, especially if it takes place in nature.
Make Time To Walk
Moral of the story? Make time to walk every day, because even 20-minute sessions can help supercharge your health. But even if your baseline is more sedentary and you have to start from scratch, don’t be too hard on yourself – it’s important to build up slowly, says Christina Dorner, a certified personal trainer.
“When starting a walking program, start slow – start with 10 minutes, once or twice a week, and add days or length to your walks over time,” Dorner recommends. You can record your walking blocks in a notebook (or a spreadsheet, or even a fitness tracker) to see how you’re progressing over time.
But most importantly, Dorner says, “Be patient with yourself, and remember everyone has days when they are not motivated to do something. It takes discipline – always remember your why.”
Ready to hit the ground walking, whether in a speed walk or a stroll? So were we! Check out our more detailed tips for getting started with a walking program – and make the most of the upcoming fall foliage on the move.
Have you added walking to your daily routine? What’s your walking ‘why?’ Tell us in the comments!
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