What I gained (and lost) by walking 10,000 steps each day for 5 months

10,000 may be an arbitrary number, but the daily step goal has helped improve my mental and physical health

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Tuesday 22 August 2023 11:23 BST
How to set healthy goals for the new year

On 2 January 2021, a friend told me that their New Year’s resolution was to walk 10,000 steps a day. It was the dead of winter and I was still feeling the effects of a champagne hangover from a night celebrating the end of 2020.

When they asked whether I wanted to attempt the goal with them, I replied with a noncommittal yes. After all, it was freezing in New York City and the thought of walking aimlessly for hours outside didn’t sound appealing, no matter what the alleged health benefits.

However, a quick glance at my iPhone’s Health app did slightly more to motivate me, as the built-in pedometer informed me that I’d walked an average of just 5,361 steps a day in 2020 as a result of lockdowns and working from home amid the pandemic.

Throughout January and February, I made a few half-hearted attempts to complete my 10,000-step goal, at times questioning how my friend had found himself so dedicated to the daily exercise. It was one thing to go for a daily walk, but to walk for the hours needed to meet the number, especially after a day of working from my couch, seemed impossibly daunting.

By March, I’d given it up completely, with my daily exercise consisting of little more than a trip to the grocery store, or sometimes, nothing at all.

In August, however, two things changed: I saw my friend for the first time in months, at which point I witnessed their 50-pound weight loss in person, and I stepped on the scale for the first time in a year.

While it may be superficial to acknowledge that my motivation was one ignited by the changes to my appearance as a result of more than a year in various states of lockdown, it was the push I needed to change my lifestyle.

On 9 August, I completed my first official day of walking with a step count of 10,200, at which point I was immediately overcome with a migraine so severe that I had to lie down. The second day was no different, prompting me to ponder whether my body simply wasn’t interested in walking that far, or if the pounding steps on the pavement had somehow triggered my headaches.

A year without exercise meant that I hadn’t considered the impact walking five miles in the August heat could have on my levels of hydration.

Once I’d upped my water intake, I found that, as far as health and fitness goals go, walking 10,000 steps a day was actually a realistic, and achievable, goal for someone who hasn’t had much of an interest in exercise before.

From a noticeable improvement to my mental health to a 15-pound weight loss, this is what I’ve experienced during my five months of walking 10,000 steps a day.

While I didn’t set out on my goal with a focus on improved mental wellbeing, it wasn’t long until I felt the positive effects of the exercise on my general mindset.

It may not have been immediately apparent to me, but the extended amount of time inside during the pandemic had left me, like many others, feeling isolated from the outside world.

When I pushed myself to go outside each day to complete my steps, it reminded me of all the things I’d missed about the bustling city, which I got to witness slowly returning.

The fresh – or fresh for New York City – air, and chance to be outdoors also had a positive impact on my mental health, while the walks allowed for an extended opportunity to connect with friends and family, as I turned to my contact list for lengthy phone calls during these long hours.

Now, each day at 5.45pm, a call to any of my contacts prompts the greeting: “Are you walking?”

While the positive mental impacts of the exercise were new for me, considering I’ve preferred a sedentary lifestyle for much of the past 27 years, the effects are well-documented by researchers.

According to a 2011 study on the associations between physical activity and mental health, exercising at any level is associated with better mental and physical health. Although I typically try to maintain a steady 3.2-mph speed, there are days I celebrate finishing my goal at all.

A recent study by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health also found that physical activity is a useful way to prevent depression, with researchers finding that “doing more physical activity appears to protect against developing depression”, and that “​​replacing sitting with 15 minutes of a heart-pumping activity like running, or with an hour of moderately vigorous activity, is enough to produce the average increase in accelerometer data that was linked to a lower depression risk”.

The exercise has also been a reliable stress reliever, as I have noticed I spend far less time trying to fall asleep as a result of my tiredness from physical exertion.

In addition to my improved mental health, walking has also had a noticeable impact on my appearance over the past five months, with my legs and arms noticeably slimmer, and the appearance of cellulite on my thighs lessened.

When I stepped on the scale for the first time, a month after I’d started the daily walks, I was genuinely shocked to find I’d lost six pounds. Since I began walking in August, I’ve lost a total of 15 pounds, a goal I’ve managed to achieve without making any significant changes to my diet.

Interestingly, my experience contradicts a 2020 study, which found that walking 10,000 steps a day won’t prevent weight gain, and that tracking steps “won’t translate into maintaining weight or preventing weight gain”.

At the time, the researchers suggested that the findings showed “exercise alone is not always the most effective way to lose weight”.

There have also been unseen changes to my physical health from walking, as it has become easy to complete my daily goal, and thousands of additional steps, without feeling physically strained. A walk up-hill that would have left me out of breath in July is now no more difficult than a stroll down 5th Ave.

According to previous research, the exercise also has the added benefit of improving my overall health, with a 2020 study finding that taking 8,000 to 12,000 steps a day is linked to a lower risk of dying of any cause.

A 2019 study also found that, among older women, those who walked 4,400 steps a day had lower mortality rates than those who walked less.

However, while the common health and weight-loss theory suggests that we should be striving to take 10,000 steps a day, 10,000 is actually an arbitrary number believed to be chosen by a Japanese clock company in the 1960s to sell pedometers.

But despite the consumerist origins, the number has been a useful goal for me over the past five months as I have embarked on a journey of improved health.

For more on walking check out our 10 best hiking shoes that make treks a walk in the park

This article was originally published in January 2022

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