Why you should be walking more, and how to walk 10,000 steps a day

There are many ways to exercise, but walking is the most fundamental: we do it every day, it’s an inextricable part of our lifestyle, and for most of us, walking accounts for the majority of our overall physical activity.  And most of us should be doing more of it.

Why?  For starters, because walking can burn a lot of calories: about 53 calories per mile per 100 pounds of body weight.  It’s also a decent leg workout- it won’t bulk you up like doing a leg workout in the gym, but it will help keep your legs toned and your calves strong.

On top of the calories you burn, walking also suppresses your appetite– you’ll eat fewer calories if you’re physically active.  And of course, spending time out in the sun is good for you too.

But the most important thing to know is probably that people who walk more live longer.

Walking more is one of the simplest habits you can build- and by walking 10,000 steps, or nearly 5 miles a day, you can burn around 400 calories a day- enough to lose more than a pound of fat per week.  But first, a word of warning.

How not to walk more

The biggest mistake people make when trying to walk more is that they resolve to make the decision to walk whenever possible- to take the stairs when they can, to park at the back of the parking lot when they go to the store, and to walk instead of grabbing an Uber whenever they need to go somewhere nearby.

The problem with this strategy is it requires you to make constant decisions.  Because humans are cognitive misers- because we strive to conserve mental energy whenever possible- this strategy tends to fall apart within a matter of days.

Instead of planning to make a lot of little walking decisions every day, you should make one big decision: to build a new walking habit that you follow day in and day out.  Here are five easy ways to build your walking habit and walk 10,000 steps a day.

Strategy #1: Start walking somewhere you used to drive

This strategy is ideal if you normally drive somewhere that’s about one or two miles away- such as your workplace, the gym, the grocery store, or a friend’s house.  Just ditch the car and walk there every day.

The beauty of this strategy is that it allows walking to piggyback onto a habit you already engage in nearly every day, like going to work.  Walking will be a part of your daily routine from day one.

For more distant locations, you could also bike instead of walking- yes, I know the article title said walking, but remember: the goal is to get exercise, not rack up an arbitrary step count.  Bicycling burns about half as many calories per mile as walking ,depending on speed.  If you start biking to and from a location that’s four miles away, you’ll be getting the equivalent exercise as if you had walked around 10,000 steps.

Strategy #2: Start hanging out at places within walking distance

This strategy is ideal for people who have spare time and would like to explore their neighborhood more.  Find a new favorite hangout near your home- like a coffee shop, lunch spot, a park, or just somewhere with a scenic view- and go there every day.

This strategy generally works best for those of us who work from home- instead of being cooped up at home all day, you can enjoy the freedom and variety of working wherever you want, and just as with the first strategy, you can integrate exercise into your work commute.

Strategy #3: Work standing up

If you don’t have time to walk, you can reap the same benefits (minus the sunlight) by standing up more throughout the day.  There’s an easy way to do this: just work standing up for part of the day.  If you don’t have a high surface to work on, like the kitchen counter, you can use a standing desk.

I like this laptop stand because it’s cheap, lightweight, and works with the desk I already have.  If you don’t already have a desk, you could instead buy a full-sized standing desk that adjusts it’s weight electronically.

If you really want to take things to the next level, and don’t mind spending the extra money, you could instead get a treadmill desk, allowing you to walk while you work.  You would think that you’d be unable to work while walking, but surprisingly you’d be wrong- it only takes about an hour to get used to using these things, and then it’s just as easy as working sitting down.

Strategy #4: Track your walking

Don’t settle for estimating how many steps you walk per day- most people are terrible at this.  Research shows that people almost always overestimate how much exercise they get, often by more than 50%.

Instead you should be directly tracking your walking habit. The simplest way to do this is to use a smartphone app, such as the built-in health app on the iPhone.

If you want to get fancy, you can use a fitness tracker like the FitBit Charge 2.  Fitness trackers are about as accurate as smartphone apps at tracking steps taken, but the advantage they have is that they will also track your heart rate and estimate how many calories you burn per day, taking most of the guesswork out of the process.  They also track your sleep, and their companion smartphone apps can be used to log your food intake.

Strategy #5: Make walking fun

One of the best things you can do to build any new habit is to make it fun.  With walking, this can mean teaming up with a friend and building your walking habit together, or listening to music while you walk.  Or it could mean walking somewhere with a nice view, or walking to your favorite coffee shop for a cup of coffee every day.

If you enjoy the company, I particularly recommend teaming up with a friend, as it provides accountability and encouragement in addition to fun.  For those who can’t find a friend or prefer walking alone, you can get similar benefits by using a fitness tracking app or better yet, hiring a habit coach to help you build your walking habit.

Walking 10,000 steps a day can burn enough calories to help you lose upwards of a pound a week- and if you know how to build the habit, it’s easy and even fun.