Numerous studies, especially over the past decade, have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of being sedentary — from compromising heart health and metabolism to risking earlier death.
Even if you’re getting the amount of exercise recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (and several other health groups), you may still face health risks associated with too much sitting, research shows.
So how many steps per day do you need? And how frequently do you need to be taking those steps?
Although it’s common to hear the recommendation to get 10,000 steps per day at a minimum, that number isn’t actually based on any research, says Bruce Bailey, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. According to Harvard Medical School, the number actually originates from a Japanese pedometer manufacturer, which created the promotion in 1965 as a way to tout its product.
That said, getting a robust number of steps daily does confer plenty of advantages, especially if you get them throughout the day instead of all in one big session, he says.
“The more steps you get, the less sedentary you’re being, and that brings a range of health advantages, from better cardiovascular function to improved mood and energy levels,” he says.
Here are some ideas to boost your count and get into the rhythm of moving more:
1. Set Daily Goals
Using goal setting can give you the extra oomph you may need when you’re feeling particularly couch-bound, Thomas says.
This could be as easy as setting a new step count goal every day. For example, get just 200 more steps today than you did yesterday, then add 200 more tomorrow, and so on. If you don’t have a fitness tracker, you can set goals based on time or distance, Thomas suggests. Maybe a 10-minute walk at lunch becomes 15 minutes.
“Setting huge goals right away tends to backfire,” says Thomas. “Instead, see it as doing just a bit more each day. Make it fun, see it as a challenge, while still having a realistic goal.”
2. Go Exploring, Even if It's Around the Neighborhood
In her book, Ashton recounts getting more steps in exploring new places while traveling. But you can explore no matter what country, city, or neighborhood you’re in. Even in a very familiar neighborhood, it’s possible to get more steps in by taking the time to see your landscape in a new way.
Find new routes and walk down streets or along trails you haven’t seen before. You can even amble around the perimeter of your house a few times and really look at all the details of the plants, trees, sidewalks, and landscaping around you.
3. Use Reminders
When you’re in the midst of lounging or sitting at a desk, it can be tough to remember to take a walking break, so have your phone do it for you. There are several free apps geared toward reminding you to get moving.
“You really want to focus on creating a beneficial habit, so it’s automatic,” Thomas says. “With consistency, you can get to the point where moving more and getting steps into your day is as natural as brushing your teeth, it’s just what you do to stay healthy.”
4. Park at the Far End of the Lot
This is a common tip, but it bears repeating, Thomas says. Depending on where you’re shopping, the parking lot can be quite spacious, making it easy to get in quite a few steps both coming and going. Or consider walking to do your errands instead of taking the car in the first place. And if you can walk in or along somewhere with nature, that’s another boost for your well-being.
“Even in urban areas, being around some trees and grass, or other natural elements, has been shown to increase physical activity, improve mental health, and even boost the immune system,” says Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, PhD, professor in environmental epidemiology at the Barcelona Institute for Global Research in Spain. He coauthored a March 2019 study published in Lancet Public Health that suggested greater use of green space is so powerful it should be considered a public health intervention.
5. Cultivate Distractions
Being pleasantly distracted in this way while you’re getting steps in is a great strategy for extending your activity more than you might otherwise, Thomas suggests. Need to make calls for work (that aren’t video calls)? Get on your feet and get in a few steps while you take them.
Rather than catching up with a friend while you’re sitting at home or waiting in line, arrange to call when you have to do the laundry, clean the kitchen, or walk your dog — any task that doesn’t require much mental focus. Or consider queuing up a compelling audiobook or podcast for a long (or short) walk.
6. Do a Virtual Race
Although numerous events — even the Boston Marathon — have been cancelled this year, and many others postponed this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, you can still create a sense of training for an event by signing up for a virtual race, Thomas suggests. These are done either on the honor system or by syncing a fitness tracker to the race’s app.
Best of all, you can do a walk for charity, and get the good vibes that come with walking for a cause. Many even award medals, like in-person events. Check out options like Virtual Strides or The Conqueror Virtual Challenges.
7. Get Competitive
When Ashton told family, friends, and colleagues she was doing a step challenge, the response was motivating — many were eager to join, she notes in the book. That turned her challenge into a team effort.
Making it into a friendly competition could be even more powerful, research suggests. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in September 2019 found that people were more effective at increasing physical activity when collaborating with friends and colleagues for a collective goal or competing against one another compared with just doing it on their own. And competing with others even boosted step counts months after the initial intervention had ended.
The strategies here might seem easy and simple — and that’s the point. Getting more steps should be integrated throughout your day, in short bursts that allow you to still tackle your to-do list and live your life.
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