Don’t freak out if your step count is lower than usual. There’s more important ways to move, according to an expert.
At 8 o’clock on a Wednesday night, my housemate asked me to join her in pacing around our seven-by-seven foot garden. The reason why? She hadn’t hit her 10,000 steps, and wanted to close the rings on her fitness tracker.
Nearly two months later, she’s semi-given up on that dream. Even though lockdown is easing and we are allowed to walk to our hearts content, without daily commutes and dinners out, it’s been hard to hit that target. Data from Fitbit suggests we’re all in the same boat with a reduction in movement: in the UK in April, step counts were down -9% from last year. In Spain, where residents weren’t able to leave their home even for exercise purposes, steps were down by 38%.
While I’m not wedded to a tracker like my housemate, I do use my Health app to loosely check if I’ve been moving enough throughout the day. In my pre-lockdown life, I’d hit my 10,000 steps no problem. I’d roll out of bed and walk straight to the gym, where I’d complete a strength workout before commuting. My days were often spent running up and down stairs in the office and popping out to grab some lunch, before trudging 20 minutes home from the tube station in the evening.
Right now, without the gym and a journey into the office, I feel more aware of my movement than ever. But is that misguided? The recommendations for 10,000 steps a day comes from a decades old study from Japan, that found that most people who were active were hitting around that much movement a day. In the UK, most people will hit around 5,000 steps a day without trying too hard. This is what Marie Murphy, walking expert and leader of the scientific body reviewing the UK’s adult physical activity adult guidelines, refers to as “incidental” steps, and is what we’re all missing out on right now.
“Even if you’re not an active commuter, you still normally walk to your car, to the station, to your office building,” she says. “Right now, we’re not really punctuating our day with that movement. In a normal office setting, you’d also be getting up to go and talk to people and even the toilets are further away than they are in your house.”
Does losing out on these little bursts of movement matter, I asked Murphy. “Well, we do know that almost any exercise brings benefit in a graded relationship, so the more you do, the more benefit you get,” she says. “But in my mind, these incidental steps are always the less important steps. They tend to be slow ones that aren’t doing a huge amount for you other than keeping you moving.”
The one most important thing to remember, and the thing that gets lost in the step count glorification, is that the UK doesn’t actually have guidelines on how many steps we should be getting a day. Rather, the advice is that we get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over the course of the week.
Those two things are correlated, of course: “Evidence shows that people who do 10,000 steps generally tend to meet the guidelines,” Murphy explains. “But it’s because of the fact that in order to get that many steps in, people will have had to have added in a brisk walk or a run, or some sort of formal activity into their day.”
So, no, it isn’t the end of the world if the only steps you’re losing out on are the ones you take from your front door to your car, as long as you’re getting in some heat-rate-rising walking during your allocated outside time, and follow up with some exercise in the home.
“The obsession with hitting 10,000 steps is misguided, especially in the current environment,” Murphy adds. “It’s better to focus on replacing the current step deficit with something structured, like a cardio workout, gardening, playing football with your kids, or anything that will get you to the moderate intensity target.”
So that’s what I have been doing: six days a week I’ve been doing a morning session that includes around 15 minutes of mobility work followed by around half an hour of either upper body circuits or lower body supersets. I make sure that those 30 minutes get my heart beating fast and I’m out of breath, perhaps more so than I do in my usual gym-based, lower intensity strength training routine, in order to compensate for a lack of other movement. As the gyms begin to open up, I’ll continue to make sure that the time I spend there works towards that intensity target until I get my normal structure back.
And there is definitely no more pacing my garden.
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