On January 2, 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 an evening celebrating the end of 2020.
When they asked if I wanted to try the target with them, I answered with a no-obligation yes. After all, it was freezing in New York City, and the thought of walking aimlessly outside for hours on end didn’t sound appealing, regardless of its purported health benefits.
A quick look at my iPhone’s Health app, however, motivated me a little more, as the built-in pedometer told me I’d walked an average of just 5,361 steps per day in 2020 due to lockdowns and working from home amid the pandemic.
In January and February, I made some half-hearted attempts to reach my goal of 10,000 steps, sometimes wondering how my friend was so committed to daily exercise. It was one thing to take a daily walk, but to walk the hours it took to meet the number, especially after a day’s work from my couch, seemed impossibly daunting.
By March I had given up completely, with my daily exercise being little more than a trip to the supermarket, or sometimes nothing at all.
In August, however, two things changed: I saw my boyfriend for the first time in months, when I personally witnessed their 50-pound weight loss, and I stepped on the scale for the first time in a year.
While it may be superficial to admit that my motivation was fueled by the changes in 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 August 9, I completed my first official day of walking with a step count of 10,200, after which I was immediately overcome by a migraine so severe I had to lie down. The second day was no different, leaving me wondering if my body just wasn’t interested in walking that far, or if the pounding steps on the sidewalk had somehow caused my headache.
A year without exercise meant I hadn’t considered the impact running five miles in the August heat could have on my hydration levels.
Once I increased my water intake, I found that, as far as health and fitness goals are concerned, 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 yet.
From a noticeable improvement in my mental health to a weight loss of 15 pounds, this is what I experienced during my five months of walking 10,000 steps a day.
While I hadn’t set my goal for improved mental well-being, it didn’t take long for me to feel the positive effects of the exercise on my general mindset.
It may not have been immediately apparent to me, but the long time I spent indoors during the pandemic made me feel, like many others, isolated from the outside world.
When I forced myself to go outside every day to complete my steps, it reminded me of all the things I’d missed about the bustling city, which I saw slowly returning.
The fresh air — or fresh air for New York City — and the chance to be outdoors also had a positive impact on my mental health, while the walks provided an extensive opportunity to connect with friends and family when I checked my contact list. for long phone calls during these long hours.
Now, every day at 5:45 PM, one of my contacts gets a call with the greeting, “Are you walking?”
While the positive mental effects of exercise were new to me, having preferred a sedentary lifestyle for the past 27 years, the effects have been well documented by researchers.
According to a 2011 study of the associations between physical activity and mental health, exercising at every level is associated with better mental and physical health. While I usually try to maintain a steady speed of 3.2 mph, there are days when I celebrate that I’ve reached my goal at all.
A recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also found that physical activity is a helpful way to prevent depression, with researchers finding that “more physical activity appears to protect against developing depression,” and that “replacing sitting through 15 minutes of a heartbreaking activity such as running, or with an hour of moderately vigorous activity is enough to produce the mean increase in accelerometer data associated with a lower risk of depression”.
Exercise has also been a reliable stress reliever, as I have found that I spend much less time trying to fall asleep due to my fatigue from physical exertion.
In addition to my improved mental health, walking over the past five months has also had a noticeable impact on my appearance, with my legs and arms noticeably slimmer and the appearance of cellulite on my thighs diminishing.
When I first stepped on the scale, a month after I started the daily walks, I was genuinely shocked to find that I had lost six pounds. Since I started hiking in August, I’ve lost a total of 15 pounds, a goal I managed to achieve without making significant changes to my diet.
Interestingly, my experience contradicts a 2020 study, which found that walking 10,000 steps a day will not prevent weight gain, and that following steps “will not translate into maintaining weight or preventing weight gain.”
At the time, the researchers suggested that the findings showed that “exercise alone isn’t always the most effective way to lose weight.”
There have also been unprecedented changes in my physical health from walking, as it has become easy to reach my daily goal, and thousands of extra steps, without straining me physically. An uphill walk that would have left me breathless in July is now no more difficult than a walk down 5th Ave.
According to previous research, exercise also has the added benefit of improving my overall health, with a 2020 study showing that taking 8,000 to 12,000 steps a day is linked to a lower risk of dying from any cause.
A 2019 study also found that among older women, those who walked 4,400 steps a day had a lower death rate than those who walked less.
While common health and weight loss theory suggests that we should aim for 10,000 steps a day, 10,000 is actually an arbitrary number chosen by a Japanese clock company in the 1960s to sell pedometers.
But despite its consumerist origins, the number has been a helpful target for me over the past five months as I embarked on a journey to better health.
For more information about hiking, visit our 10 Best Hiking Boots That Turn Hiking into a Walk in the Park
This article was originally published in January 2022