Is 10,000 Steps per day really “a thing?” Is it really better for your health and burning fat than copious amounts of cardio on machines and treadmills?
That’s a question I’m asked a lot, and the simple and complex answers are both yes. I do believe (and observe) that walking is quite essential to overall health and works very effectively as a weight loss aid, all which aid performance and more importantly, have you living a happier, healthier life.
Let’s explore all these points a bit more in depth:
I have seen more people lose weight, keep it off, and just feel better through taking leisurely walks. It’s my number one piece of advice for weight loss. In fact, when I am asked by clients if they should do elliptical or treadmill work in conjunction with the training we do together, I often say “no, unless you like it” (remember, I’m not talking about competitive athletes here, I’m talking about people who want to be healthy and manage their weight). The "cardio" issue is a point of contention for many. The big issue is, if you don’t like running and it stresses you out, then we really aren’t doing anything to help you. In fact, we’re probably hurting you. Stressed people don’t breathe. People who don’t breathe are tight, easily agitated and stressed. Those people have a difficult time losing weight. It’s a vicious circle.
My mentor Steve Maxwell has a system of weight loss and breath work that involves zero running or interval training (in conjunction with a proper diet of course). I’ve seen it work on me and scores upon scores of his clients and mine. Mark Bell has his #10MinuteWalks movement, where he goes on 10 minute walks each morning and throughout the day. He famously lost A LOT of weight by going low/no carb (ie: altering his diet) and simply working in more time for walks, particularly in the morning (more on this below).
Weight loss is a multi pronged effort, but it’s not a complex one. Often times, we put so much stress, emotion, and thought into our weight because there’s so much identity behind it. That’s the very reason you need to go outside and walk. It’s the best stress reducer and thing to keep you sane. Which blends perfectly into the next main benefit:
Walking as Meditation
Meditation is such a loaded word for so many people, and is too often associated with quietly sitting in a room on a carpet with your eyes closed. It doesn't have to be that way for everyone: walking can be your form of escape that can provide you the same benefit of someone with the discipline to sit quietly in a room by themselves.
Walking can very easily become meditation and an instant stress reducer; it’s an escape from whatever anxiety you have going on, that may otherwise cause you to reach for food or stimulants. If you’re feeling a bit anxious or habitually hungry, take an inventory: you’ll probably find you’ve been sitting too much that day, or are emotionally stressed over something. Instead of reaching for anything to eat or drink, go for a walk instead: see how you feel and if the short walk didn't change your mindset a bit.
Walking also helps with problem solving. I learned from working with a client once who was a PhD in Adult Education and learning techniques that we often associate and commit things to memory better when it’s associated with some type of movement. She was was particularly excited to see that kids were carrying around fidget spinners everywhere, because it's helpful for them to do that while reading or studying. While I don't use the fidget spinners myself, I often find that if I’m stuck on a problem, it helps to walk out of my apartment or studio. By the time I’m at the corner of the block, I have new insight, or I no longer care as much about whatever issue was stressing me out.
Walking for Health
It’s fairly widely accepted that walking 10,000 steps per day equals around 5 miles traveled. It’s pretty safe to assume most Americans (and westerners more generally) are not getting this type of mileage in a day. The very act of increasing your step count to 10,000 from your current total will mean that you are going to simply be moving more throughout your day, and less likely to be sitting for longer periods of time. It’s the sitting that presents almost as many problems as the lack of steps. Poor posture, tight joints and other mobility issues arise in a matter of weeks of spending time primarily sitting.
The other thing I often discuss with clients is a great point that was made by Paul Chek in his book How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy. When your body is doing an activity that doesn’t raise your heart rate much, it won’t overly activate your sympathetic nervous system. Movements in that category set your body into peristalsis, which is essentially a pumping/clearing movement that has the effect of moving waste through you body (literally and figuratively). Paul gets into that topic and also explains it more here.
What does this look like for you?
Your health depends on you moving a minimum of 30 minutes per day: from a physiological point of view (peristalsis), as a stress reducer, and as a weight loss mechanism. This doesn’t mean intense exercise, and it doesn’t include the training you do to achieve your other goals.
Hedge your bets and always make a practice of moving 30 minutes each day. When all else fails, or if injury pops up, 30 minutes of gentle movement, or 10,000 steps is exactly what will keep you healthy.
I recommend walks, light movements, and if you’re stuck inside because of weather or travel, treadmill walking will do (heck, even walk in circles). But remember, your steps don’t have to be intense to matter. In fact, it’s probably better if they aren’t.