Ouch! Crack! I hear the crisp snap of my left baby toe catching on the leg of the locker room bench. I know, even before I glance at the digit splayed away from its brother toes, before it even begins to blossom and purple, that my toe is broken. I’ve broken several across the years. Broken toes are ridiculous injuries, bothersome rather than incapacitating. I hobble home, sanitize one of my housemate’s used popsicle sticks (he has a frozen sweet tooth), cut a doll-size splint, and Siamese-twin my pinky and ring toes with adhesive tape.
Three days later I’m ready to return to the gym. But in the interim—March of 2020—the world has changed. Quarantine has gone into effect. My gym is closed. Pretty much everything else as well. All that remain is contradictory information which, like most Americans, I interpret to my benefit. Social distance: piece of cake. Frequent hand washing: not a fan. Stay indoors: no way. I cover my face and venture out into the empty world. Ditto the next day, and the next. I am simply too antsy not to move.
My world shrinks so tiny, I scarcely ride my bike. Everything essential is within walking distance, and goodness knows I have plenty of time to get places. My toe heals. I kept walking. I explore neighborhoods I’ve never visited; it’s nice to discover something fresh. My pedometer logs 10,000 steps or more a day. Every day.
I always enjoy a challenge, especially when wallowing in ennui. I target 10,000 steps a day for a month. Then another. By summer, the objective is clear: 10,000 steps for a year.
Walking 10,000 steps a day is cultural shorthand for middle-aged health. The science behind the theory is less impressive than the simplicity of the number. However, most of us fall far short. The Mayo Clinic estimates most Americans walk 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day. It’s not difficult to boost that number, but I can attest: it doesn’t happen casually. Walking 10,000 steps every day takes time, effort and discipline.
Time: I have learned that in order to walk 10,000 steps a day, I have to dedicate at least an hour a day to walking, on top of general movement. Others might be able to get by with less—I have a notoriously leisurely gait—but it is virtually impossible to log 10,000 steps in a day without taking a conscious walk.
Effort: The advantage of doing a sustained walk is that it can feel like actual exercise. You’re not likely to break a sweat, but when trekking three or four miles in one clip requires enough effort to induce fatigue. Unfortunately, walking will never replace a gym session or Pilates class; the benefits for the lungs and legs simply don’t translate to the upper body. Gravity’s belly sag still must be battled with planks.
Discipline. Every morning I figure my day’s walk. I prefer to have a destination. Even better, an errand to accomplish. Taking in 10,000 steps on a sunny September Saturday is easy, virtuous, fun. Not so much in rainy November, icy January, or windy March. Until you mine the satisfaction in striding through those challenges and tackle the task with zest rather than dread.
As of March 16, I’ve walked over 10,000 steps every day for a full year. My personal best was June 13, 2020 (37,215 steps). I managed only 10,030 on January 20, 2021. (I am not above pacing the hall at night while brushing my teeth if I need that extra hundred or two.) I doubt I will extend my goal to the next logical milestone: five years is way off and, knowing me, I’ll likely break a toe in the interim. Still, I don’t see myself couch potatoing anytime soon. Like everyone, I’ve had my share of boredom, depression, and lethargy during this pandemic. Still, I’m convinced I’d have had a whole lot more without my daily walks.