I tried to go from walking 500 steps to 10,000 every day for a month, and it was a lot more stress than I bargained for

Before and after the 10,000-step challenge.

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Before and after the 10,000-step challenge.
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Martha Sorren

Modern-day work setups make it pretty hard to stay active. Many people work desk jobs that have them sitting down for eight to nine hours a day. Plus, there’s the time spent in a car or on public transportation commuting to and from work that adds to this sedentary lifestyle.

I work from home, which means my daily activity consists of walking to the fridge or the bathroom in my small apartment. Before I started this experiment of walking 10,000 steps every day for a month, I was averaging about 1,500 steps a day, but only because I would sometimes walk closer to 2,000 steps on the weekends, as opposed to my usual 300 to 500 on a workday. Frankly put, I was not moving around nearly enough.

The average adult needs to do about 20 minutes of moderate exercise per day

It's recommended that adults aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.

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It’s recommended that adults aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
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Shutterstock

The US Department of Health and Human Services says that adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Doing so can help reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But that recommended amount of exercise doesn’t correlate to the 10,000 steps that most fitness tracker goals are set to. USA Today reported that adults who apply that 150 minutes per week rule to their own lives usually walk around 7,500 steps per day. Even Fitbit, a fitness tracking device known for counting steps, doesn’t necessarily recommend 10,000 as the be-all-end-all step number.

10,000 steps may not make sense for everybody

According to Fitbit’s website, someone who is naturally more active may want to aim for a goal even higher than 10,000. If you’re just starting out, you may want to aim lower. Fitbit says you should track your normal step count for a week and use that as your baseline. Then, add 1,000 steps to your baseline to be your step goal for the next week. You can add another 1,000 steps each week until you hit the number that works for you. If you’re trying to maintain weight loss, you may want to walk less, but if you want to lose more weight, you can aim for a higher step count.

I didn’t know any of that until I finished this experiment, but it does explain some of the challenges I faced during my experiment, especially in the first week.

The first week was a huge shock to my sedentary system

Previously, I had been using the Health app on my iPhone to track my steps. But for this experiment, I invested in a wristband activity tracker. I bought this $30 one from Target that counted my steps, miles walked, connected to an app on my phone, and even tracked my sleep patterns.

I tracked my daily steps using this $30 device from Target.

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I tracked my daily steps using this $30 device from Target.
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Martha Sorren

I failed to reach my 10,000-step goal twice in the first week. The first failure happened on the first day of the experiment. I was moving across the country on this day. I had to take two flights to reach my new destination and I figured that walking around in the airport to get to my various gates would help me easily hit 10,000 steps.

However, a time change meant I lost two hours in my day and I also couldn’t do much walking during the four hours I was in the air. It turns out that my gates weren’t as far apart as I’d planned for either. By the time I landed, I was only at 4,100 steps. I managed to get in another couple thousand just by virtue of walking around my new apartment and unpacking a bit, but I was simply too tired from traveling to put much more of an effort in. I ended the day with 6,083 steps. It was literal miles ahead of my average, but still under what I needed to get.

The second failure came on the fifth day. I hit 7,600 by the end of the day, but had an unusual amount of work to do. As a writer, I need to use both my hands to type, and my step counter only tracks my steps when my arm is moving. I wasn’t able to make it happen that time because I prioritized my writing deadline over my step counting.

Read more: I struggle to eat healthy food and fit in exercise when I’m busy and stressed. How can I stay on track?

The rest of the days that first week, I did manage to get to 10,000 mostly because I was in the process of moving into my apartment. That required trips to Target, running back and forth to move things out of the car, and cleaning the place from top to bottom. It wasn’t a usual week of activity for me, but it helped me succeed in getting my steps almost every day as I started out on this journey.

By the second week, I had developed some step hacks

Once my moving tasks were complete, I was forced to come up with activities to add to my usual schedule in order to get my steps in. I couldn’t just count on an extended Target trip to help me out. I started taking my small dog on multiple walks around the block per day. Walking to the end of my street and back was around 1,000 steps. She’s little so she couldn’t go for much longer than that at a time. But the idea of taking her on 10 walks a day sounded ludicrous, so I focused on getting 2,000 to 3,000 steps a day from two to three walks.

My dog was a big fan of all the extra walks I took her on.

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My dog was a big fan of all the extra walks I took her on.
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Martha Sorren

I also bit the bullet and joined a gym. The first day I went to the gym, I was amazed at how much easier it was to knock out the steps. Instead of having to spread them out over a full day, I was racking up thousands in under an hour.

Going to the gym wasn't ideal, but it was a quicker way to hit the 10,000 steps goal.

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Going to the gym wasn’t ideal, but it was a quicker way to hit the 10,000 steps goal.
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Martha Sorren

I did the elliptical for 30 minutes in the morning and was already at 4,600 by 10:30 a.m. It helped that I was doing this on a Saturday where I was also planning to go to the local farmer’s market later on. I hit my 10,000 steps at 5 p.m. while at the market. Two dog walks and a trip to my local CVS later and I hit a whopping 15,500 steps.

I had to get creative in order to squeeze in last-minute steps

In addition to begrudgingly dragging myself to the gym a couple of times this week, I also walked alone in my room at night while watching TV to hit my goal.

I would just jog in my room before I went to bed to get in whatever remaining steps I needed. Usually, I would end my day with about 6,000 to 8,000 steps, so I would take every last minute until midnight walking while watching a TV show to ensure that I hit 10,000.

Read more: The total body workout you can do in 10 minutes flat, according to a trainer who works with action stars and supermodels

Frankly, it was exhausting because I didn’t always want to stay up until midnight. Sometimes I also had other work I should have been doing, but I had to prioritize the steps and push the work to the next morning. There were many days that I woke up at 5 a.m. after staying up until midnight just to do the work I couldn’t get done the previous night because I was jogging in my room.

At one point, I had to read a book for one of my writing assignments. I tried walking in place while reading, but that made it really hard to focus. Instead, I put the pedometer on my ankle and mimed a bicycle motion in the air to get steps while I read.

I realize this is sort of cheating on the notion of actual steps, but it was also a workout for both my legs and abs, so I'll call it a win.

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I realize this is sort of cheating on the notion of actual steps, but it was also a workout for both my legs and abs, so I’ll call it a win.
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Martha Sorren

It was around this time that I also began squeezing in steps whenever I could, like while I was brushing my teeth or waiting for my food to finish microwaving. Every little bit counted.

Read more: The best time to exercise is before breakfast, a new study says

My two failures this week were when I (for pressing work reasons or because I had people over) couldn’t rely on my nightly bedtime jog to complete my steps. It was definitely a crutch for me, and I wanted to try to find a way to get my steps out of the way earlier in the day to free up my night.

By the third week, I discovered the importance of a long, leisurely walk

My most successful day came during my third week. Not only did I go to the gym in the morning and walk my dog, but I walked to and from the college football game which was about an hour of activity. I hit my 10,000-step goal by 2:30 p.m. Later, a trip to the mall and then downtown for drinks allowed me to hit 18,000 steps, the highest number I would reach throughout the entire experiment.

Emboldened by the idea that a longer walk than the ones I was taking my dog on could yield better results, I implemented extra walks into the rest of my week. A trip to the coffee shop here, and an errand to a gift shop there, or even the occasional walk to the grocery store. I still needed to walk the rest out in my bedroom at times, but I was falling into a better routine of getting more steps earlier on in the day by taking prolonged walks.

By the last week, I had a real rhythm going

My final week was definitely my smoothest. After realizing that isolated gym time wasn’t enough to get all my steps and neither were isolated long walks, I combined the two. An average day for me during week four looked like this: Wake up and walk my dog (around 1,000 steps), walk to get groceries or run errands (around 3,000 steps), go to the gym and exercise on the elliptical for 20 to 30 minutes (around 4,000 steps), walk my dog in the evening (1,000 steps), jog the last 1,000 steps out in my room to a TV show.

I still finished my days with a jog in my bedroom.

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I still finished my days with a jog in my bedroom.
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Martha Sorren

I wasn’t always able to get both the gym and a walk in, perhaps because I was too busy on a given day with work friends, or because it was raining out. But for the most part, this was a successful model to hit 10,000 steps every day.

I did see results from my increased physical activity

I was always more successful at getting my steps in on weekends when I didn’t have to work and was generally more active. Definitely one of the biggest speed bumps I hit on this journey was waiting until the end of the day to finish my steps, which sometimes resulted in me having too much work to do or being too tired to complete everything.

At the same time, it was frustrating that steps were the only thing being counted. Often at the gym, I would do 20 to 30 minutes of cardio and then move to the weight machines. The US Department of Health and Human Services also recommends two days per week of strength training, but your pedometer won’t pick that up, so I often left the gym having less to show for it step-wise than what I really did.

I didn’t do this experiment to lose weight, but I did end up losing seven pounds over the course of the month. Part of that probably had to do with the fact that I was eating better after being put on a diet by a nutritionist to help manage my IBS. But another part was the fact that I was moving around at all, which was a huge change from my previous lifestyle. I went to the gym nine times in the month, which is seven more times than I’d been to the gym in the previous year.

Despite my results, I probably won’t continue to aim for 10,000 steps every day

My step counter throughout the month.

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My step counter throughout the month.
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Martha Sorren

Getting 10,000 steps every day was an all-consuming project for me. I was keenly aware when I was not close enough and I often put off other work to go to the gym, take extra walks, and jog in my room. It made weekdays pretty stressful.

Moving forward, I would like to aim for the 150 minutes of exercise per week model that leads to around 7,500 steps a day. I think that, for a weekday, 7,000 steps is pretty good. On the weekends, though, I’d actually like to aim for more than 10,000 because it’s easier to get steps in on these days. Maybe I’ll go with 12,000 to start.

I am excited to take off my fitness tracker because it doesn’t always go with every outfit, but also because of its shortcomings. I want to go to the gym and do nothing but weights one day and still feel accomplished even though my step counter wouldn’t have tracked any of it.

The key to getting healthy and maintaining it is to get moving and vary your workouts. I want to try adding in more biking, running, cardio machines, weights, and yoga to my days in addition to walking to make sure I’m exercising all aspects of my body and not just pounding my feet on the pavement.

10,000 steps is a nice goal to aim for, but it’s not the be-all-end-all for exercise. It’s all about finding a plan that works for you and your lifestyle, whatever that may look like.