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Squeezing in those 10,000 steps isn’t always healthy

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

By Ellie Philips

Design by Aimee Lee

There are many merits to walking. It can promote good mental and physical health, time spent outside, it is largely accessible in terms of affordability and its relatively gentle physical impact, and it is an environmentally friendly way of getting around.

Assigning numerical value to walking, however, is not so healthy. The popularity of smartphones, Fitbits and other fitness tracking devices has seen 10,000 steps emerge as a universal and widely validated metric for a healthy lifestyle. What began as a marketing ploy to sell these products has become fiercely adopted as a prescription for daily movement, to the extent where not meeting the quota may engender feelings of guilt, shame and ineptitude.

Whilst there is no doubt that getting to 10,000 steps is likely to carry with it various of the aforementioned benefits of walking, relying on such a rigid metric to determine the quality or success of one’s day is an unrealistic and joyless practice. Indeed, it seems to suggest that any day where the arbitrary step quota hasn’t been fulfilled is a disappointing one. It neglects the fact that 10,000 steps doesn’t account for a revitalising dip in the sea, a short stomp up a steep hill or a rainy day of much-needed rest spent cocooned in duvets watching films or reading. The pursuit of good health takes on many forms.

It seems ludicrous that 10,000 steps has become such an authoritative measure of health when we all inhabit different bodies and different lifestyles. Whilst 10,000 steps might be a good aim for some, for others suffering poor physical health or experiencing a troubled relationship with food and exercise it is overly strenuous and harmful. Meeting this step count daily also necessitates a certain amount of privilege in terms of lifestyle. For those with easy access to green spaces and enough time to get out into them 10,000 steps is likely to seem far more enticing than for those living in more destitute areas or whose rigorous work schedule allows little time for a leisurely stroll.

Defendants of the step count are likely to argue it is a good way of combating the effects of the more sedentary lifestyles that humans have adopted as a result of technological advancement. It is true that in terms of natural or unplanned movement, we do less than we used to.

Yet, it is hardly natural or a return to those much romanticised old ways, to be relentlessly checking one’s watch or phone to monitor how close to the target you are, or circling the block one extra time to squeeze those last few steps in. Ascribing a largely arbitrary number with such unwarranted moral prestige seems merely another additional artificiality of modern life.

We inhabit a culture in which goals are heaped upon our plate in overwhelmingly gargantuan portions. There is a pervasive sense that we should all be continually working towards our next achievement. To add meeting 10,000 steps to the daily pile of obligations only intensifies our unhealthy preoccupation with targets. Movement is undoubtedly important, for a whole host of reasons, but it is unlikely to be truly healthy if it is based on an obsessive fixation with hitting an immovable and impersonal numerical value.

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