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My Challenge of 10,000 Steps a Day

Struggling to meet a fitness goal reveals some unexpected truths

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Is 10,000 steps a realistic daily goal for most people?
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There was a time when I was quite the walker.

Back in my 30s, once I had admitted to myself that I was a lousy runner, I started fitness walking like an athlete in training. Nearly every morning I was out the door to meet a buddy (key to keeping up motivation) — striding at a good clip for two to three miles, the conversation flowing to keep us going.

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With my nearly no-fail regimen, I shed prewedding and post-baby weight and kept stressful office life from consuming my mental health. In my 40s and 50s, I even trained for and completed two major treks to raise funds for breast cancer — including a three-day journey of 60 miles.

So why am I struggling so much just three days into my self-prescribed challenge of taking 10,000 steps a day? At 7 p.m., I’m as exhausted as if I’d just led a power yoga class, yet I’m dragging myself around the neighborhood as darkness descends — with another 3,000 steps to go.

Before I started wearing a tracker, I was sure I easily walked close to 10,000 steps, or about five miles, most days. Sure, I was prepared to work a little to meet the official target — a staircase here, a saunter around the block there. But soon came the rude awakening that I don’t take anywhere near 10,000 steps a day. Honestly, it’s not usually close to 5,000.

To be fair, I did nearly hit my goal on Day One, when I told my family, whom I was visiting in Denver, that walking had to be on the agenda. And striding with the Rocky Mountains in view at 7 a.m. accomplished all the great things I’ve known a morning stroll can do. I felt more energetic for our shopping excursion later, and cheerfully confident that I was securing my spot in the “very active adult” category.

Of course, walking on a weekend away — like on that rare “easy” workday — is chump change compared with trying to fit it into the packed Monday through Friday of your typical manager-level office worker.

I generally go to bed exhausted at 11:30 p.m. with the idea that I’ll hit the pavement at 6 a.m. But when the alarm goes off, that cozy duvet feels like iron holding me down. So I resolve to walk at lunch. Then the mad pinging of my in-box means dining at my desk. Not a problem, I tell myself: I’ll zip home around 5 p.m. for a brisk stroll before sunset. But who am I kidding? A day full of meetings means real work just begins at that hour.

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I was sure I easily walked close to 10,000 steps most days. ... But soon came the rude awakening that I don’t take anywhere near 10,000 steps a day.

— Lorrie Lynch

As Day Four dawns, I do manage to get up earlier and bang out one and a half miles around my neighborhood before work. Not using the shuttle that runs between my parking lot and office building means I rack up another half-mile. I walk to meetings during the day, but don’t get in a significant number of steps before the half-mile back to the garage in the evening. Then I look at the tracker while driving home: 6,200.  Not even close.  

And I start to think: Where did this 10,000 steps idea even come from? The next day, I call Neil M. Johannsen, a Ph.D. and scientific director of exercise testing and intervention at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, who says the catchy fitness goal originated in Japan in the 1960s. His colleague, Catrine Tudor-Locke, traced the idea to the marketing of a pedometer around the time of the Tokyo Olympics.

Yes, he says, 10,000 steps a day is a somewhat arbitrary benchmark. What’s more, it’s not always a realistic one. “I think people get caught up in numbers sometimes, and when they don't meet their goals they get down on themselves and it becomes a punishment behavior,” Johannsen says. “Then they ultimately stop the behavior and don’t return to it.”

It’s as if he is seeing into my psyche.

Johannsen suggests making 7,500 steps the current goal and 10,000 a long-term one — adding on 100 steps at a time. Then he delivers the best news: My yoga classes can count for about 5,000 steps. Well, the way he puts it is: If I do 5,000 steps and an hour of yoga, I will have met fitness goals for the day. You don’t, in fact, need feet hitting the ground to be racking up meaningful exercise.

Despite my rocky start, Johannsen reenergizes me. The truth is, I know how important it is to keep setting daily goals for myself. Along with being 30 years older than I was during my walking heyday, I’m also carrying more weight than I’d like. And because I have coronary artery disease, finding the motivation to lace up could be critical to protecting my health.

On the fifth day I am able to sleep in, knowing that I have a workout scheduled for the evening. I do the same walk from parking to work, and an extra fitness walk with a personal trainer means I reach a highly respectable 8,000 steps. I stay at the gym for a yoga class, and in Shavasana — the final resting pose — I think about what’s really doable for me going forward.

Scheduling three regular fitness walks a week seems like a good start. So does using the tracker as motivation to help me try to fit in more steps around the margins of my work day — and many more on the weekends, when I have leeway with my schedule. That awareness was why on my recent trip to New York, I walked the Brooklyn Bridge from downtown Brooklyn to lower Manhattan — twice. And yes, I felt all the better for doing so.

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