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My problem with step counts

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

I am doing a step challenge along with hundreds of colleagues as part of a staff wellbeing/bonding/fun initiative at work. It's been a while since I've tracked my steps properly and it's brought up some old feelings that I thought I'd put in a blog post. For some reason, people have become more and more obsessed with counting steps. I was not immune to the hype around getting in 10,000 steps a day, and for a significant amount of time, the need to achieve at least 10,000 steps became an unhealthy obsession. I would become anxious if I wasn't on track to reach the goal, and would run on the spot, phone in hand, at the end of the day if I wasn't on target. The silly thing is, I know that the 10,000 target is a completely arbitrary number (more on this in a second), yet I still let it have control over my feelings and behaviours. I did have a FitBit a few years ago but it stopped working at some point and I didn't replace it. However, then I realised that my phone was tracking my steps and so I became obsessed with having my phone on me at all times, ensuring that my daily, weekly, monthly and then yearly average was at least 10,000. Obviously no one ever saw my fantastic stepping achievements, and there was no tangible impact on my health as I'm an active person anyway. Yet somehow that didn't matter, I had to get those steps!

My Big Step Challenge profile!

Why is 10,000 the magic number? I think people now know that the number came from a Japanese marketing campaign which preceded the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964, but if you hadn't heard that yet, there ya go! It was simply plucked out of the air as a good round target to be aiming for and wasn't backed up by any kind of scientific evidence. But in spite of the random provenance, the 10,000 step target is widely assumed to be the holy grail. There have since been studies to try and figure out what the optimal step count is and the results are varied - optimal for what? The only number that I've been particularly interested in was the stat I mentioned in my last blog post: that the average daily step count required to induce feelings of anxiety and depression and decrease satisfaction with life is 5,649 (i.e. if you're not reaching this number then you make yourself more vulnerable to feeling rubbish - but this is more about the positive effect of exercise on mental health). The focus on steps also fails to take into all the other ways we move, expend energy, build muscle, enjoy life as a human being... Arguably, feeling compelled to run up and down on the spot clutching my phone, isn't nearly as healthy as doing a yoga class (very few steps), or jump on a rowing machine (zero steps but a full-body workout).

There are hundreds of tech articles published every year which compare different models of Fitbits, Apple Watches and other expensive gadgets that you can strap to your wrist for constant information about your activity levels. Information that we really do actually know about ourselves. It's like using a calculator to check what 2+3 is, just in case... We know if we've done exercise, if we've walked a lot, if we've raised our heart rate, etc. Are we so detached from ourselves that we need to be alerted to the fact by a wearable tracking device? Since trying to become more intuitive about eating, I've started to notice how out of touch most of us have become to our bodies. We ignore cues like tiredness, stress, hunger, restlessness, and dismiss emotions like sadness, fear, happiness even. I think the trend of tracking steps/heart rate/activity levels has actually disconnected movement from ourselves. Are we exercising for ourselves and acknowledging the benefits as we feel them, or are we exercising because a watch is telling us to/making us feel guilty or insecure?

image of people in the front row of a nightclub.
Wearing my Fitbit to Lakota because, despite being lost in D&B, I knew I'd be getting loads of steps

That image from Lakota actually makes me LOL. I genuinely can't believe I went to Bristol's grungiest clubs with my ugly Fitbit on! I used to wake up in the morning having already completed 10,000 in the early hours of the morning = health? no! It's tough because I've been on all sides - frantically and compulsively exercising simply to make my step count number increase, being fairly sceptical of the whole thing, and also benefitting from the added motivated to get off the sofa and take a quick walk in the fresh air. However, this blog has been prompted by a step challenge that has resulted in a number of my lovely colleagues being FAR more active than normal, and really loving it! So am I just being overly sensitive about step counting? Possibly. There are lots of people who would argue that having a Fitbit is just a little added motivation to get outside and get moving. I think a lot of people (most, I hope) are able to go about it all without ascribing any emotion to the number on the watch. Being able to be happy with whatever your totals are at the end of the day and move on without a second thought is exactly how these devices should be used. I guess For me, the issue was that quickly the number did start to mean something - usually that I wasn't doing enough. That became a negative feeling which then usually affected my behaviours (I'd do more, eat less, or a combination of the two).

One thing that really saddened me when I was working in a primary school, was how many of the children (from about yr 3 usually) had fitness trackers on. Invariably the littlest ones had very little comprehension about what they were for and would usually lose them fairly rapidly in the playground anyway. They'd also have to take them off for PE/games lessons, and so the number on their watches would be far below their actual step counts. However, the principle of having step targets to aim for is not really something that I think children should be worrying about. It's just another way of imposing our society's obsession with diet culture on children from a young age. It seemed to be an actual trend, however when I was 7, we all had skip balls - those little sparkly balls on the end of a string. They kept us entertained for hours (and are good little fitness toys), but the focus was on play, not statistics. To create sustainable habits and maintain long-term fitness/health in children, I'd imagine that investing a bit more time in finding activities that a child finds genuinely fun would be far more effective and healthy than simply sticking a step counter on their wrist and letting them get on with it themselves.

young girl plays with a skip it ball.

If you are a Fitbit enthusiast or a step count lover, I'd really encourage you to check in with yourself. How would you feel about leaving your tracker at home and going for a long walk? Or going for a long run and not having it on Strava? If the answer to either of these questions is anything other than 'completely fine about it', just sit with the question for a bit longer. How does it make you feel? There are benefits of fitness trackers, so please don't think I've got a vendetta against you if you have one and love it (I promise). Not too long ago, my answer to both of these questions would be a fairly anxious confusion I think. I'd be conscious that my anxiety was silly and quite irrational, but I think I'd really struggle to do either of those things. I do have a chequered relationship with food and exercise and perhaps I'm projecting my anxieties onto you all. Sorry if this has been the case! But if this resonates with you, don't worry - you're not alone! It's never too late to start practicing more mindful behaviours and starting to break down these obsessions or feelings.

I'm afraid it's taken me quite a long time to form some kind of conclusion here, but writing this has been really helpful and cathartic for me. Hopefully you can take something away here, even if it's just a better awareness of how difficult and complex some people's relationship with physical activity can be. I just wish that we could all live an active lifestyle without even thinking about it. We'd walk instead of drive, live locally, and take care of our community. We'd be detached from screens and technology and we'd be using our brains more independently and creatively. Perhaps lockdown has actually given us a taste of this little utopia. And whether or not it's taken a step count challenge to get us motivated to go outside and use our bodies for their intended purpose, I really hope that these habits can become sustainable in the long-term and that we can feel that sense of achievement from within. Not because a device has alerted us to the fact that we've hit 10,000 steps. If you find yourself running up and down on the spot at the end of the day to make your watch happy, think back to this blog post and see if you can allow yourself to stop and leave the total where it is...

(But just in case anyone is interested, my step count team has just broken into the top 20 of 118! Old habits die hard...)

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