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 Megan 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.
That was during the first lockdown, when we thought that we’d only be staying inside for a few weeks, and wanted to keep our routines as normal as possible. Nearly a year on, and it’s safe to say that Megan has given up on her step count dream.
While walking has got some people through the past few weeks, neither Megan nor I have prioritised it since England has fallen into our third lockdown. With cases of coronavirus rising at a horrifying rate, we’re only allowed outdoors for exercise once a day, and the cold weather means two hour-long walks are off the cards.
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 without a problem. I’d roll out of bed and walk straight to the gym, where I’d complete a strength workout before commuting to work. 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 the need to clock in a minimum step count per day 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 – something that we’re all doing less of right now thanks to lockdown.
“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 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 heart-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. But one thing I’m definitely not doing anymore? Pacing my garden.
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