Being physically active on a regular basis is important for overall health. When it comes to diabetes, physical activity is essential to help manage blood sugar levels, decrease the risk of heart disease, and even help prevent type 2 diabetes from occurring in the first place.
There are numerous ways to be active, but perhaps one of the most common (and easiest) ways to “pick up the pace” is to walk. But if you’ve seen your daily steps dwindle down recently, maybe now is the time to do a course correction and start getting those steps in!
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Walking is popular!
Walking is one of the most popular forms of exercise worldwide, according to The Nutrition Source of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It’s pretty easy to see why — walking is inexpensive, it’s safe, it doesn’t require equipment or special skills, and, for the most part, you can walk just about anywhere.
The American Heart Association is all for walking. Walking at a “lively pace” for at least 150 minutes a week provides more benefits than you might realize:
- Better blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels
- Stronger bones
- Lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer
- More energy and stamina
- Better memory and a lower risk of dementia
- Better sleep
- Better mood
- Preventing weight gain
More people walk to stay fit rather than run. While running is another great form of exercise, not everyone wants to run or can run; walking is a great alternative.
10,000 steps a day?
Many people have heard or read that getting in 10,000 steps a day is the goal. If you use a pedometer or fitness tracker, you might even notice that, if you do get 10,000 steps, you get a “congratulations” notification.
But where did this goal of 10,000 steps per day come from? You might be more than a little surprised to learn that, no, it wasn’t based on scientific studies. Rather, this benchmark stemmed from a Japanese company campaign to promote their new step tracker called Manpo-Kei which means “10,000 step meter.” There is certainly nothing wrong with aiming for 10,000 steps a day — after all, it’s helpful to have a target to aim for.
Research does support that the more steps, the better (up to a point). In one study of 4,840 men and women, those who took at least 8,000 steps daily had a 51% lower death rate compared with those who took 4,000 or fewer steps daily. And the Women’s Health Study, which involved 16,000 older American women showed that women taking 4,400 steps a day had a 41% lower death rate compared with those taking about 2,700 steps a day.
A newer study, published in September 2021 in JAMA Network Open looked at 2,110 adults taking at least 7,000 steps each day. Compared with those taking fewer than 7,000 steps daily, the higher-step group had a 50% to 70% lower risk of death. Also, there wasn’t an additional reduction in the risk of death for those who walked more than 10,000 steps each day.
If setting a daily step target helps motivate you to walk, great! But if you’re feeling that aiming for 10,000 steps is too daunting, don’t let that discourage you from walking. Focus on what you are able to do and remember that every step you take counts.
Why step counts have dropped
The COVID-19 pandemic had profound effect on levels of physical activity, including step counts. In a study published August 31 in The Lancet Global Health, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco measured step counts in the two years following the start of the pandemic.
Step counts were gathered from more than 1.25 million users from more than 200 countries from January 2019 through mid-February 2020. The findings? The average step count from November 2021 to February 2022 was lower compared with November 2019 to mid-February 2020. While there appears to be a return to pre-pandemic physical activity levels, step counts in North America, Europe, South America, and Asia are still lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Getting back on track
If you’re ready to lace up your sneakers and head out, great! But if you’ve never been much of a walker or aren’t really sure how to get started, the tips below can help.
Decide where you will walk.
Outdoors on a sidewalk is a good choice but depending on where you live, that may not be an option. Consider a school track, an indoor track at a fitness center, or going to a mall. Maybe you have access to a treadmill. And there are plenty of free home exercise walking videos to try.
What to wear?
Comfortable clothing is a must, and if you’ll be outside, dressing in layers is wise. Running or fitness shoes are best (make sure they fit properly) and wear socks that wick away moisture. Also, after your walk, check your feet for blisters and redness.
Safety means that you’ve let someone know where you’re going (if you’re walking alone), you walk in well-lit areas, you keep your phone handy, you stay hydrated, and you bring treatment for low blood sugars with you (if you are at risk for lows). Safety also means that you wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses if you’re walking outside during the day. Also, if you develop foot, knee, hip or back pain — or any other type of pain — while you’re walking, stop and check with your doctor, advises the American Heart Association.
Start low, go slow.
Whether your goal is 10,000 steps or 30 minutes or even a certain number of miles per day, if you haven’t been walking regularly, start with a short stroll, says the American Heart Association. Walk for, say, 10 to 15 minutes and then gradually increase the time or distance. If you’re not up for walking 20 or 30 minutes at a time, try breaking up your walk into two or even three segments throughout the day.
Starting any kind of fitness routine can seem overwhelming and it’s easy to get discouraged, especially if you try to do too much, too soon. The best course of action is to ease into it. When it comes to walking, there are so many ways to get your steps in. Here are a few:
- Take your dog for a walk.
- If you like to chat on the phone, why not take a walk around the block or your home while you’re talking?
- If possible, think about ways to walk to where you are going, rather than drive.
- Take the stairs whenever you can.
- March in place while you’re cooking dinner or during commercials on TV.
- Take extra laps when you’re in the grocery store or when you’re in a department store.
- Set a timer on your phone or computer when you’re working to remind you to get up and walk around.
- Park further away from the store or your office.
- Research local walking trails in your area or sign up for a historical walk of your city.
- Enlist a walking buddy (or two or three). Walking with others can be motivating.
- Track your steps with a pedometer, a walking app, or an activity monitor. Set a lower goal as you get started, and then gradually increase your goal by 500, 1,000, or 2,000 steps a day.
Walking is a safe exercise for most people, but if you have heart issues, arthritis, or diabetes complications, such as neuropathy, check with your health care provider before start accumulating those steps.