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Steps, time, distance: However measured, walking can reach health goals

Walking, whether measured in steps or time, is a good way to begin a journey to better health. Guidelines and devices can help along the way.

September 06, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • Walking 10,000 steps in a day requires some planning to reach your goal. Most don't reach 10,000 steps without adding in some moderate exercise.
Walking 10,000 steps in a day requires some planning to reach your goal.… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

At a time when many Americans spend their days exercising nothing but their thumbs to exhaustion, others have grown obsessed with steps.

Each footfall, from getting the mail to getting in a run, is tracked on the way to 10,000 — a not-so-magic number that's been turned into a fitness grail. Ten thousand steps is about five miles, depending on the stride, a distance that seems shorter when you start adding in every step from waking to sleeping. Still, many people barely log 3,000 steps per day.

You'd have to live in another galaxy to have missed the admonition to walk for health, to counter our sedentary jobs and hobbies: Walk the dog, park far from the store, take the stairs, schedule a walking meeting. It's exercise that's accessible to most people in most places. It improves cardiovascular health, strengthens bones and boosts mood. It uses calories. And it's simple.

The 10,000-step daily goal originated decades ago in Japan and has gained momentum in recent years in the United States, in part thanks to all the cool little tracking devices on the market. But many experts are looking at our walks in another way that could be easier to track and less intimidating: Walk for 30 minutes, five days a week. (One half-hour walk on its own is significantly less than 10,000 steps.)

Either way you measure it, health officials say, is fine. The point is to get up and move.

"When we began to test [walking 30 minutes a day] in our workforce, we had people telling us they were able to track it without a special device. It was fun, they could do it with co-workers," says Kathy Gerwig, who leads the healthy workforce programs for Kaiser Permanente, including one called KP Walks.

Walking 30 minutes a day seemed like more than just a good idea to Bob Sallis, a family doctor who has been president of the American College of Sports Medicine. The benefits of exercise seemed as good as medicine. "If someone did a study of a drug that had some of these benefits, it would be the standard of care to prescribe it," says Sallis, spokesman for the national program Every Body Walk! (

Time or steps, monitoring and immediate feedback seem to be essential.

"The 10,000 steps is really intended for people whose primary activity is walking. These are the people who, when they get up in the morning, they strap the pedometer on," says Steve Farrell, science officer in the division of education at the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit preventive medicine institute in Dallas. He is not a step counter; he likes to swim and bike.

James Hill, the founding executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado and coauthor of the book "State of Slim," says 10,000 would be great — if people actually stepped that many steps, something too few of us do.

To get to 10,000 in a day usually takes planning. When I got a fancy tracking device called Fitbit, I was surprised how easy it was to hit the 3,000 or 4,000 mark just going about my routine, even in drive-everywhere Los Angeles. Without jogging, though, I'd rarely get to 10,000.

Cheap pedometers can do that just fine, but the tech crowd is enamored with accelerometers: BodyBugg, UP or one of the products from at least a dozen companies. They also measure intensity, count calories and provide motivation, Farrell says.

If you are ready to walk, what should you do once you have comfortable walking shoes?

• Consider whether the goal is good health, weight loss or improved athletic performance. As Farrell says, exercise is, to a point, dose responsive. To be in good health, experts recommend a minimum of 150 minutes a week at moderate intensity (and not all on the weekend).

• For weight loss, experts recommend 300 minutes a week of moderate activity or 150 minutes of vigorous activity in addition to a healthful diet of appropriate portions. Work toward the goal. For someone getting in 5,000 steps a day, maybe 7,000 is an intermediate goal, Hill says. Then keep moving up, gradually, to 10,000. Five minutes of nonstop walking is about 500 steps, he says.

• It helps to walk with vigor. Move your arms. Stand up straight. After all, getting from the kitchen sink to the bedroom, unless you live in a castle, is not going to do much good.

• The pace should be fast enough that it's hard to sing, slow enough that it's reasonable to talk, Gerwig says. "Strolling down a grocery store aisle is not what we're talking about."

• Log it, however you choose. "Psychologists tell us that people who keep track, those are the people who are most successful with behavior change long-term," Farrell says.

• Meeting the goal doesn't mean it's OK to sit the rest of the day. "You may cancel out some of those benefits," Sallis says. "Get up as much as you can."


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