Your desk chair is killing you.
Staring at a screen for 8 hours a day will make you go blind.
If you don’t get 10,000 steps a day, you’re going to explode.
Your laptop has been hardwired so that if you type less than 50 words per minute, you’ll be electrocuted.
…okay, so that last one is a little far-fetched (unless you live in a Keanu Reeves movie), but given the sheer quantity of frantic, dire health pronouncements that seem to be aimed squarely at writers these days, it’s not all that hard to believe.
And in fact, there’s a grain of truth in most of these. Sitting all day is really bad for your posture and your overall health. Forgetting to look away from your screen and stretch regularly can lead to some nagging repetitive motion injuries and eyestrain. And getting up and walking more surely can’t do bad things for your health, right?
But how did we settle on 10,000 steps as the number you need to be healthy? Is it just hype, or is there science backing it up—meaning that we really should go walk circles around our computer once an hour like our fitness trackers are urging?
Let’s take a closer look.
The 10,000 steps thing ties in strongly with our current obsession with tracking everything from calories to sleep to activity.
Biohacking, as it’s currently known, is hardly new—people have been logging data on themselves for as long as we’ve been making tally marks to count things. We’re fascinated with ourselves and how our bodies work, so that only makes sense.
Pedometers—devices to track how far you’ve walked—have been around for centuries. Leonardo daVinci sketched one out, Swiss inventors were playing around with them in the 1780s, and Thomas Jefferson brought one back to the US from France.
Our current obsession (in the form of the Fitbit, iWatch activity tracker, Samsung Gear, Misfit, Jawbone, etc.) has its roots, as so many of our obsessions do, in Japanese culture. In 1960s Japan, a fitness craze sprang up that involved walking more and tracking how much you walked. A pedometer, marketed with the catchy name of manpo-kei, the 10,000 steps meter, was the key. The trend boomed through the early 1990s, based in part on the idea that 10,000 steps per day was the key to balancing caloric intake and calorie expenditure through activity for a healthy lifestyle.
So by clipping on a pedometer or firing up our favorite smartphone health app, we can easily track how far we go in a day. But how did Y. Hanato, the originator of the Japanese manpo-kei craze, come up with the magic 10,000-step number? Most importantly…is 10,000 steps really the key to being healthy?
Let’s get this out of the way: 10,000 is not a magic number. It’s just a nice, shiny round number that we can all remember.
Most reputable sources, like the CDC or the British NHS, prefer to think of activity in the form of minutes of moderate activity. So the actual goal set by science is more like 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Brisk walking counts as moderate activity, and according to walking expert Catrine Tudor-Locke, director of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that adds up to roughly 8,000 steps a day.
Even if you’re looking at the CDC’s preferred 150 minutes a week (8,000-ish steps a day), it’s still mostly an arbitrary figure. What matters in terms of health is that you’re increasing how much you move around and making sure that you do move regularly each and every day.
In reality, most people already walk about 5,000 to 6,000 steps each day. Well, okay, us writers who are superglued to our computers all day may not. But as it happens, just the daily activities of life tend to involve a fair number of steps. You’re not taking them all at once, like if you walked five miles to work every day, but they still add up in terms of metabolism.
Shooting for 10,000 steps, then, simply means aiming to get about 4,000 steps more than you already walk. At the average stride length, that’s only a little more than a mile (about 2,000 steps makes a mile, and most people can do 2,000 steps in half an hour).
And you don’t need to get them all in one go. Walking for half an hour, say on your lunch break or after dinner, is a nice idea, but for a lot of us, that’s prime writing time (or family time, or TV time, or…you get the picture).
You can break those extra steps up into your day, like by taking a 10-minute break every hour to walk to the far side of the office and back. If you’re a freelancer and work from home, do a lap or two of your house and make sure to hit the stairs for a little cardio.
So why bother tracking your steps if 10,000 isn’t going to magically make you slimmer, healthier, smarter, and more attractive?
Because humans need goals. Without a clear target to work towards, we tend to slack off. There’s always something else to be doing—some item on the to-do list, a phone call to make, an email to send, an errand to run, or a TV show to binge-watch.
Tracking your steps gives you a measurable, easy log of your activity baseline for a day. Sure, you might have done something active that doesn’t set off a step counter, like rowing or biking, but as a general measure, it’s pretty effective. And being the competitive creatures we are, trying to meet a goal—or exceed it—makes a great motivator to do something other than sit on the couch or behind a desk.
In fact, a 2007 Stanford meta-study showed that pedometer users walked an average of 2,000 steps more than non-users and got up to 27% more physical activity. Wow!
For writers, this is especially important. Many of us work desk jobs all day, so we’re sitting there and then coming home to sit more behind the screen, typing our next manuscript or working on marketing for our latest launch. It’s tough when your day job, your side hustle, and your passion all involve being tied to a computer for long chunks of time!
Incorporating a step-counter into your day can give you the motivational boost you need to be more active…which will increase your energy levels, give your brain a chance to refocus and recuperate (enhancing creativity and mood), and help you be healthier overall.
So get out there and go for a walk already! You’ll come back feeling refreshed, accomplished, and ready to tackle the next chapter.
10,000 steps may not be the magic number, but increasing your active movement every day will help you be healthier, happier, and more creative.
For more on keeping healthy as a writer, read on: