Over on Twitter earlier this week, I found myself boasting about how many steps I’d walked in a day (just over 19,000, no big deal – it was the last Sunday before returning to work, after all).
“I have become obsessed with step counts and I hate myself for it,” I prefixed my brag with. But no amount of self-deprecation flavoured sugar coating could hide the fact that I was clearly proud of my ‘achievement’.
Sure, I did my Joe Wicks PE lessons a few times a week. But, considering the sunny spring weather we were weirdly blessed with, my daily walks were short strolls around London Fields.
As restrictions lifted and the weather continued to warm up, I returned to the gym, took my bike out more and walked further afield to see friends around London. It felt great! Why is it always such a surprise to re-learn time and time again that exercising outside really is good for you?
So when lockdown two was announced last November, I decided to take a little more control of my happiness by ensuring I exercised. I took on the couch to 5K challenge (which I of course told everybody I spoke to about), thanked the lords for the return Joe Wicks’ PE lessons and started to take note of my step count.
I did not know the scientific reason why 10,000 steps is the optimal daily target bandied around in society, but I went with it anyway. What I did know is that I could feel the benefits to both physical and mental health. And that’s why I’m continuing the habit through the third lockdown.
I like having a manageable target to work towards. It ensures I take my lunchtime walk. It encourages my running (did I mention I’ve been running?). I properly switch off from Covid news while taking my time to listen to a podcast, speak to a friend over the phone or simply absorb the moment. I feel the sweet vitamin D on my face. And on these long, cold, sometimes lonely nights, I am pushed to get off the sofa, wrap up in 50 layers and take a final turn around the block to rack up those final 1,000 steps.
But then there’s a bit of a darker side too: checking my phone’s step count nearly as frequently as my Instagram (read: a lot), feeling like I’ve had a lazy day if I only hit 7,000 steps, and embarrassing myself by tweeting about the times I hit those double figures.
When I shared this shameful obsession with my colleagues, Kayleigh made her own confession: “I get so disheartened when I check my phone’s pedometer and realise I’m nowhere near my 10,000 target step count. I’ll spend ages running around the house to try and creep that number up – despite my boyfriend telling me that the number is arbitrary and means nothing.
“Honestly, it has such an impact on my mood. If I’m at 10K, I’m more likely to have a good day and sleep well.If I’m at a measly 4K, though, I’m more likely to fret and worry all night long.”
This got me thinking… is this seemingly healthy habit in danger of becoming a bit of an unhealthy fixation?
It’s something that our fitness writer Chloe, who is also my fitness guru, recently explored. She found that data proves many of us aren’t walking as much as we usually would in the pre-pandemic world.
But the UK doesn’t actually have guidelines on how many steps we should be getting a day, which is what makes the 10,000 step target slightly “misguiding”. Rather, the advice is that we get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over the course of a week. So instead of obsessively counting steps, we should consider including cardio and strength training into our weekly routines.
And, in terms of the impact that obsessive tracking can have on mental health, Therapy Is Magic founder Jo Love tells me: “Goals can be a great way to hold ourselves accountable, get fit, perform better, fulfill our potential or simply just get stuff done.”
However, Jo adds that this doesn’t mean daily goals are always good for us. She explains: “It’s how we treat them that matters. If our goals are based on what we think we should want rather than what actually motivates us we could run into trouble. Trying to achieve a goal that doesn’t align with our own motivations is a recipe for disaster. If our goals are too unrealistic, they might lead to us feeling bad, guilty or not enough when we don’t achieve them. Or even cheating in order to hit our targets.
“Setting goals can also lead to us developing an unhealthy singular focus on one area of our lives meaning other areas go neglected. We can find ourselves not living in the moment, too focused on chasing the goal, to the point where other areas of our lives and even our mental health can suffer.”
While it’s good to learn that it’s pretty pointless to worry over hitting that 10,000 step mark, I also know that having an achievable incentive to get out there and move my body in the cold is pretty helpful right now. I just need to be careful not to feel too sorry for myself if I have a lazy day.
The only thing I’m in real danger of here is becoming that person who quickly loses followers on Twitter for being unbearably boastful.