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WALKING >> How walking 10,000 steps changed my life

Oct 07, 2019

Week of October 7th, 2019

The Daily Lemon:

  • Monitor your movement and aim for 10,000 steps per day
By the end of this article, you will:
  1. Understand the role of daily movement (including walking) on your metabolism
  2. Recognize the potential benefits of walking and consider Courtney's real-life experience upon incorporating a 10,000 step daily movement habit
  3. Appreciate the potential limitations of 10,000 steps per day
  4. Establish strategies to increase your step count
  5. Determine whether tracking your steps would be a useful habit to achieve your personal goals
  6. Implement a stepwise structure (no pun intended!) to monitor and increase your daily step count
Weight Loss, Metabolism, and Walking
Metabolism is defined as the series of chemical reactions in a living organism that create and break down energy necessary for life. More simply, it's the rate at which your body expends energy or burns calories.

Our Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the total number of calories we burn in a day and can be broken down into four domains:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): is the energy required to keep the body functioning at rest (eg. if you were just to lie in bed, this would be the calories required to keep your heart beating, lungs breathing, body warm, etc.). Note: if you have more muscle mass you will require more energy (calories) and have a higher metabolic rate.
  • Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): is the energy used that’s not specially related to planned exercise or sports, digesting food, or keeping the body functioning at rest. Essentially, it is the energy you burn without being conscious of it. An example of this would be fidgeting, household chores, or walking around the office. Note: NEAT is a highly variably factor of your TDEE, the more you more throughout the day the higher your metabolic rate.
  • Physical Activity (PA): is the energy used for physical activity. It includes any movement you are conscious of which might be going for a walk, participating in sports, or a workout! Note: the more you workout the higher your metabolic rate and the more calories you require to support recovery and energy levels.
  • Thermal Effect of Feeding (TEF): is the energy required to digest and metabolize the food that you eat. Note: protein foods require more energy to digest (compared to fats and carbs) and increases metabolic rate.

Together, these four domains comprise your Total daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) which is the total number of calories you burn in a day. Weight loss is achieved when caloric expenditure (ie. TDEE) exceeds caloric intake (ie. the total calories you eat). It is generally desirable to have a higher TDEE for weight loss or weight maintenance goals. While nutritional strategies can modify caloric intake, increasing your metabolic rate is one strategy to support weight loss.

Depending on how the additional steps are incorporated, hitting 10,000 steps a day might be considered as physical activity (PA) or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Spontaneously standing up and walking throughout the day falls under the NEAT category whereas a structured, planned walk falls under the PA umbrella. NEAT is a highly variably domain of TDEE that is effected by lifestyle factors like your career, hobbies, or tendency to move throughout the day.

Either way, increasing your daily movement contributes to an increased in total daily energy expenditure. While seemingly small, making the effort to change your daily habits by adding more NEAT and PA along with reducing overall caloric intake creates a foundation for long-lasting weight-loss success.

Bottom-line: increasing your daily step count is a strategy to increase total daily energy expenditure through both conscious and unconscious movement (ie. non-exercise activity thermogenesis and physical activity). When caloric output exceeds input, weight loss is achieved.

The Benefits of Walking

Walking 10,000 steps a day has become a popular health goal. In Canada, it's recommended that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week, with no mention of a specific number of steps. Though a step count of 10,000 is certainly not the be all and end all of fitness, research has shown that 10,000 steps can improve measures such as body composition, health markers, bone mineral density, and more.

About three years ago, I decided to establish the habit of achieving 10,000 steps each day.While the long-term benefits are fantastic (ie. improved bone density and blood markers), I've been more motivated by the immediate benefits of establishing a 10,000 step habit. Initially, my goal was to lose body fat to support my performance in CrossFit (I was motivated to be lighter for gymnastic movements) as well as my aesthetic goal to achieve a leaner physique. However, I experienced benefits beyond changes to my body weight and composition.

1. Weight Loss (ie. losing body fat): increasing your total energy expenditure, while simultaneously managing caloric intake, is a strategy to lose body weight. As a CrossFit athlete, I was participating in high intensity activity for one hour of my day but the rest of my day was very sedentary. As an entrepreneur, I spent little time walking to and from an office and the majority of my work is writing articles (like this one!), meeting with clients (at a table), commuting to the office and gym (in a car!), and responding to emails (at a desk!). While my physical activity (PA) was seemingly high, my total daily energy expenditure was lower than one might predict for an athlete with little movement (NEAT) outside of my structured exercise.

When I first started monitoring my steps I was easily below 4,000 steps per day depending on the intensity and structure of my workout. I maintained my weight at 143-145 pounds. After 6 months of monitoring my steps, I established the habit of consistently hitting 8,000 or more steps per day. Without adjusting or decreasing my nutritional intake, my weight dropped to 137-140 pounds. I hypothesize that this weight loss occurred by increasing my metabolism via increased NEAT and PA.

In both photos, I was averaging about 2000 - 2300 calories on weekdays. I didn't consistently track calories on weekends but generally increased my intake. I increased my TDEE through extra walking for a 5-7 pound weight loss over about a one year time block**Note: the photo on the right is not recent.**

2. Performance in CrossFit: my goal for monitoring and increasing my daily step count was initially to support my performance in the gymnastic component of CrossFit. A lighter athlete simply has less weight to move. As a specific example, my max set of ring muscles ups was 2 at 143-145 pounds and 8 at 137-140 pounds.This was motivation for me to maintain a lower weight via increasing my metabolic rate and total energy burned throughout the day. That being said, weight loss and an increased energy expenditure did not magically transform my gymnastic skills. I spent hours training and practicing to improve my gymnastic skills and volume.

Increasing my daily step count had the unexpected benefit of improved recovery. Upon increasing my daily movement I found that my muscles were recovering faster (less muscle soreness) and my central nervous system seemed to be recovering faster as evidence of hitting new PRs and feeling a newfound excitement to get back into the gym after a rest day.

In both photos, I was averaging about 2000 - 2300 calories on weekdays. I didn't consistently track calories on weekends but generally increased my intake. I increased my TDEE through extra walking for a 5-7 pound weight loss over about a one year time block**Note: the photo on the right is not recent.**

3. Enhanced Energy, Productivity and Mood: I also found my energy level, productivity, and mood increased. The device I was wearing beeped on the hour if I didn't hit 250 steps. By replacing Instagram scrolling and Facebook breaks with a quick walk, I enhanced blood circulation to my brain and muscles. I believe that improved circulation energized my brain and muscles by delivering nutrients to the cells! The result was that I felt improved focused while I was working.

4. Improved Sleep: Since increasing my steps I find that I fall and stay asleep more easily. I believe this is because I am simply more tired from burning more energy throughout my day. I also hypothesize that my sleep has improved because my step goal has me outside daily. Research has shown that exposing your eyes to natural light for at least 15 minutes increases the release of melatonin at night allowing you to fall (and stay!) asleep more easily. 

5. Digestion: it is well established that physical activity promotes healthy and regular bowel movements by optimizing the transit time of food travelling through your intestines. Physical activity, including walking, has improved my digestive health.

6. Health Markers: studies have established that walking can reduce blood pressure, increase bone density, and improve lipid profile. Additionally, movement between meals reduces blood sugar levels. Well managed blood sugars are not only key for those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, but for anyone look to optimize their health and energy. I did not personally monitor health markers but increasing your daily step goal might be a consideration if your goal is to improve one of the aforementioned markers.

Bottom-line: I was initially motivated to walk for 10,000 steps each day for weight loss but after establishing the habit I was motivated to continue as I noticed my mood, productivity, sleep, and digestion improved.

The Limitations of 10,000 Steps Per Day

I believe that achieving 10,000 steps per day is an easy, free, and safe method to improve health and wellness. That being said, there are several potential limitations to consider.

1. Obsessive Tendency: if you have a personality that becomes obsessive with number based goals you may want to consider that tracking a specific step count could negatively impact your mental health. During one phase of establishing my step habit, I found myself influenced to engage in obsessive behaviours like going for a walk at 10pm if I was short on steps or doing laps around the house to meet the goal. After recognizing the limitations of these behaviours on my mental health, I established 10,000 steps as a guideline for myself instead of a black or white rule. For the most part I've established habits to ensure hitting 10,000 steps per day is an enjoyably and natural part of my day. However, I don't obsess over hitting this number on days that are exceptions to my daily routine.

2. Meeting Caloric Intake: If your goal is not weight loss, it is important to ensure you are fuelling additional activity via added walking with the calories required to support your metabolism and energy levels. You cannot precisely predict calories burned by walking as it is dependent on your body weight and the intensity of your walk. Listening to your appetite signals or tracking your caloric intake may be required to ensure you are energizing your body and maintaining your weight. Currently, my goal is not weight loss and I am aware that more movement throughout the day requires that I eat more!

3. Wearing a Device: Tracking your steps requires a financial investment as you'll need to purchase some type of device. Additionally, you'll have to wear it which can get in the way at the gym. Initially I found it a burden to wear during my workouts, but eventually adapted and wear it 24/7 (I like wearing it to bed for sleep tracking!). Sadly, not all watches are fashionable (according to my BFF who asked that I not wear my FitBit when I was a bridesmaid at her wedding - haha!).

When I first started monitoring my steps, I purchased a used FitBit for $100. I ended up selling it on Facebook Marketplace two years later for $50. So the investment can be small if you're thrifty! If you are interested in tracking your steps, I recommend picking up a used device before investing in more expensive trackers like a new FitBit, Apple Watch, Garmin, etc. Alternatively, you can wear your phone on you at all times as most phones will track steps. For example, iPhones track steps in the Health App. 

 Bottom-line: While walking is a safe exercise recommendation for most, you might consider whether your personality tendency, caloric needs, and budget before choosing a 10,000 step goal specifically.
Strategies to Increase Your Step Count
As mentioned above, it took my 6 months before I consistently achieved 8,000 steps per day. It took another 6 months before I consistently hit 10,000 steps per day! When I first started monitoring my steps, it was difficult to meet the recommendation as I had established very few movement based habits outside of my one hour workout routine. In time, I created movement habits that ensured I spread my 10,000 steps across the day (without obsessing or engaging in unusual behaviours like walking late at night to hit my goal).
1. Walk and talk: whenever someone calls me I stand up and start walking! In fact, I find myself calling friends and family more often as a strategy to embrace my daily movement goals. The bonus here is I am connecting with the people I love more often.
2. Walk as a form of transportation: whether I am travelling or in my home routine, I try to walk if time allows for it. That might mean taking my back pack and walking for grocery store or walking to the gym. As an example, in my home routine, driving to the grocery store takes 5 minutes each way (10 minutes total) whereas walking to the grocery stores takes 12 minutes each way (24 minutes total). For a 12 minute extra time investment, I can add an additional 4,000 or so steps to my day.
3. Learn and walk: I love learning but I don't love sitting and reading. I've found the best way to learn to be via Podcast or Audiobooks. The benefit of these forms of learning is you can walk and listen. I've found that my walking goal has increased my learning opportunities as I also listen (or talk!) when I walk.
4. Walk for a break: Many of us can relate to the habit of scrolling Facebook or Instagram for a break from work. As mentioned above, I've felt more productive when I walk for 5 minutes as my break! Many smart watches will beep on the hour to remind you to move.
5. Add walking before or after a workout: if you have a treadmill at your gym (or the weather is nice) try walking for 10 minutes before or after a workout. Many times, I'll ask a friend in class to walk for 5-10 minutes after our workout to cool down. This not only increases your step count but can improve your recovery post-workout.
6. Connect with friends: I'll often ask a friend to go for a walk with me instead of watching TV, chatting on the couch, grabbing a coffee, or going out to eat. Beyond the health benefit of walking for exercise, the distraction free environment tends to foster deeper connection and treasured conversations.
Bottom-line: hitting a 10,000 step goal can easily be managed if you integrate walking into your daily habits and routines (eg. walk as you talk on the phone or listen to audiobook or walk as you connect with friends or family)
What Gets Measured Gets Managed
Many people are of the opinion that tracking your health factors (like calories, steps, and sleep) are obsessive tendencies and unnecessary objectives to improve your health and wellness. I believe monitoring specific numbers comes down to understanding your personality type and personal goals.
In my life, I've found that what gets measured gets managed. Having a step goal has been positive and motivating for me. Each day I feel a hit of feel-good dopamine when I achieve my 10,000 step goal! My watch beeps and fireworks appear on the screen. It's so fun!
Bottom-line: Monitoring your steps will inevitably make you more aware of your daily movement. You will find yourself both unconsciously and consciously moving more throughout the day! 
Should You Add Walking To Your Lifestyle?
I believe that walking 10,000 steps per day is a safe and effective strategy for those who are looking to:
  • Lose or manage weight
  • Optimize health markers like cholesterol levels, bone density, and blood pressure
  • Improve digestion
  • Experience better sleep
  • Quicken recovery time from high intensity workouts or sports
  • Enhance energy, productivity, and mood

A Step-Wise Plan to Increase Your Steps

It took me 6 months before I consistently increased my step average from <5,000 to 8,000 and a full year before I consistently averaged 10,000 steps or more per day. I don't believe it needs to take that long to develop this habit, but be patient and persistent. This habit gets easier in time. Consider this step-wise plan to increase your daily step count and Total Daily Energy Expenditure:

1. Step 1: monitor your steps for one week to find a weekly step average. Use a smart watch or keep your phone on you to find the number.

In my case, I found my average was around 4,500 steps on most days.

2. Step 2make it your goal to increase your step count by 2,000 on average. By aiming low, you'll build confidence as you work towards 10,000 steps total.

In my case, I aim for around 6,500 steps per day. I considered it a bonus if I was above that!

3. Step 3: if you nailed the 2,000 step increase, add another 2,000 steps.

4. Step 4 continue building your steps until you get to 10,000 and are consistent.

Note: while i haven't found any evidence in the literature, I believe that the benefits of a step count exist on a bell curve. A range of 8,000-12,000 steps per day is great! More is not more. Beyond 12,000 you will continue to burn calories but you'll likely feel more tired than you do energized!

Join the Community

The best way to create a habit is with the support of a like-minded community. Join us on the Daily Lemon Facebook group or tag @vitalitynutrition_ on Instagram if you are out for a walk!

PS: if you are interested in tracking lifestyle factors, like total steps, consider downloading the free Lifestyle Planner and track your daily step count in the exercise section.

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