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We’ve Lost the Healthy (and Attainable) Middle Ground of Exercise

Between sedentary couch potato and hardcore gym rat lies the most healthy, life-prolonging option of all: a brisk but relaxing walk

“The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise, and of all the exercises walking is best.” 

Granted, it’s not the declaration he’s most remembered for, but Thomas Jefferson, among all his other accomplishments and interests, was one of his age’s greatest perambulation evangelists. Among his letters to family and friends, effusive pronouncements on the physical and mental benefits of walking crop up frequently. In this one, written in 1786 to his future son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson was trying to cajole him into improving his “feeble” health, counseling: “I have known some great walkers and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived. This species of exercise therefore is much to be advised.”

This wasn’t rambling speculation on Jefferson’s part, either. Like a great deal else in his restless Enlightenment worldview, he’d based it on his own meticulous homespun observations. In 1787, while his political allies were back home framing the Constitution, Jefferson was striding around Paris, measuring out his routes and getting heavily into the new mechanical pedometers that were all the rage among the gadget geeks of the French aristocracy. It’s thought that he even revised their designs himself, and in 1788 he sent one of his state-of-the-art devices home to James Madison with exhaustive instructions on its fitting and proper use (from your watch-pocket, “pass the hook and tape… down between the breeches and drawers, and fix the hook on the edge of your knee band”). 

For a centuries-distant Founding Father, he seems an awful lot like your early-adopter step-counting friend from three years ago, who was endlessly tracking their health data and trying to sell you on why you should get yourself a Fitbit too.

And now, some 230 years later, modern science has just about caught up with the wandering Sage of Monticello, vindicating both him and your activity-logging pal. In recent years, study after study has indicated that Jefferson’s theory that “Walking is the best possible exercise” was, while perhaps exaggerating the case a little, by no means out of step with reality. A 2019 study led by I-Min Lee of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that in a sample of 16,000 older women (all over 45, with an average age of 72), walking 4,400 or more steps a day was linked to a marked reduction in their risk of premature death. 

Two papers published in 2018, meanwhile — one which reviewed the health outcomes of 140,000 older walkers in the U.S. and the other looking at 50,000 adult walkers of all ages in the U.K. — reached similar conclusions, namely that taking regular walks at an average or “brisk/fast” pace is associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality of around 20 percent. In addition, the latter study found that deaths due to cardiovascular disease were reduced by 24 percent — just under a quarter — among its English and Scottish participants who walked at an average or quicker pace, compared to their counterparts whose default plod was on the slow side.

“We’re genetically programmed to be moving,” explains that paper’s lead author, Emmanuel Stamatakis, on a video call to Australia, where he is professor of physical activity, lifestyle and population health at the University of Sydney. “That’s why we get diseases when we don’t move — simply because we’re genetically programmed to move. This is our evolution. This is our destiny.”

Having demonstrated its centrality to long-term health, Stamatakis’ mission is to use the easy, free, open-to-most pursuit of walking to reprogram our relationship to fitness. Rather than a strenuous weekly exercise regime being something other people do — or something we feel guilty about not doing — he wants us to see that, but for a few simple tweaks, we’re nearly all of us already there. “The goal here is to be able to incorporate, engineer back, movement into everyday life,” he says. And then, all but channeling the peripatetic third president: “Walking is a first-class solution. Walking is the goal.”

When Gyms Are a Bad Fit

A more modest goal would be hard to imagine. But the fitness industry is full of noisy wisdom about the value of vigorous workouts — from YouTube personal-trainer bros and hot-yoga instructors; from health magazines and their “10 steps to get shredded” makeovers; and from the much more evidence-based hype around high-intensity interval training (HIIT) — and you’d be forgiven if you’d missed that much more pedestrian target somewhere along the way.  

“Gyms, sports and all forms of exercise, for whoever can do them, they are fabulous,” acknowledges Stamatakis. The problem is that traditional fitness culture tends to project hardcore regimes and perfect-body aspirations that lie beyond the reach of many of us — and that can be offputting, not to mention the high bar it sets logistically. Conventional approaches to structured exercise, says Stamatakis, assume “you have a certain financial capacity, and are motivated enough to take the decision to spend the money, to get ready, to travel and to do the exercise. This is a model that isn’t working for a large part of the population.”

His concerns are reflected by the bounce rate in the U.S. fitness club industry. While gym membership has grown steadily over the last decade (increasing by 37 percent since 2008), in the past few years the trend has leveled off somewhat, edging up just north of 60 million, according to industry association the IHRSA. While that’s almost one in three of the adult population, it’s more a measure of good intentions than healthy habits. According to figures compiled by gym-software company Glofox, around half of new members quit within the first six months of signing up, and American health clubs can expect to lose around 30 percent of their overall membership annually. Consumers cite their biggest reasons for cancelation as the fact that they weren’t making use of the facility (for 23 percent) and the cost of membership (38 percent). With the average gym-goer spending $58 a month to retain their membership, that’s perhaps not surprising.

Overall, the number of people taking part in regular sports and exercise has been fairly steady over the past couple of decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over a 12-year period, those who said they participated in sports and exercise on an average day rose by 3.6 percent — from just over a sixth of the adult population in 2003 to just under a fifth in 2015. Other measures suggest that between 2015 and 2019 that proportion has slightly dropped off again to just over 19 percent.

From Stamatakis’ perspective, this is all indicative that there’s a natural ceiling in the population at large for regular structured exercise as a lifestyle choice. “[For] participation in these kind of traditional fitness activities,” he says, “there is a specific demographic who will do it. And it’s very hard to increase that demographic. It’s almost impossible to increase it.”

Even if you have the zeal and discipline to be hitting the treadmills once or twice a week, if you’re glued to your sofa or your office chair for the rest of the time, it might well be that you’re not nearly doing enough to make the effort pay off.

Another study led by Stamatakis, published in April of last year, sought to put a number on the average physical activity needed to counteract the negative health risks of too much sitting around (risks that, according to research, include higher chances of heart disease and stroke). “What we found,” he says, is that — on average, and at population level — “300 minutes [a week] of moderate to vigorous physical activity (so that could contain some gym exercise) seemed to completely eliminate the sitting-related risks.”

If being energetic for five hours a week is the prophylactic, then the occasional visit to the gym, basketball court or squash club is unlikely to offset days-long stretches of inertia. “Once or twice a week for an hour? It’s definitely not going to cut it,” says Stamatakis. “You need more than that.”

In the midst of the pandemic, though, that baseline of regular activity — which breaks down to 43 minutes of sweat-breaking movement a day — might feel more of a stretch than ever. When more sedentary modes of living have been imposed on us by governments, health authorities and our own sense of self-preservation, many of us are finding our weekly windows for workouts have narrowed considerably. Luckily, the research suggests that getting our daily dose of animation isn’t all that difficult. In fact, it’s a cakewalk. (Maybe minus the cake.)

The March of Science

“Any activity is better than none, and in general, equivalent energy expenditures yield similar health benefits,” says I-Min Lee, author of the Harvard study into optimum step counts for older women. This, she explains, means that “similar health benefits can be achieved with two hours a week walking or one hour a week jogging, since they expend similar energy. Now, if one’s goal is improved athletic performance — for example, you want to have a faster 5K race — that’s a different matter. You would need high-intensity training as part of your regimen to improve performance.”

But for everyone else, she says, “The regimen for health that works ‘best’ is one to which a person can adhere over the long term.” And in this regard, “Walking is a great activity since it can be done by most people, and doesn’t require special clothes or equipment, other than a decent pair of shoes.”

In her study, she set out to find the thresholds for walking — as measured in number of steps per day — because she realized the most commonly cited target was often a big ask. “For many people — those who are older, unfit or heavier, for example,” she says, “10,000 steps per day can be a very daunting goal.” And, as Lee has pointed out elsewhere, it’s a fairly arbitrary one. Even though it’s become an article of faith in the step-tracking community, the basis for “10,000 steps a day” as the gold standard of pedometry isn’t scientific but commercial; it originates from a Japanese company that in 1965 put a pedometer on the market whose name translates as “The 10,000-Step Meter.”

“I’m not discounting the conventional 10,000 steps per day,” says Lee. “If you can achieve that, it’s fantastic.” But what her study found is that the association between more walking and less premature death appears to kick in — at least for women over the age of 45 — at 4,400 steps a day. Interestingly, the more walking the study’s participants did, the lower their risks of mortality were — but only up to a point, and it was well below that 10,000 magic number. “For older women (and likely, older men), and for mortality, the benefit appears to level at 7,500 steps per day,” says Lee. “It may be different for younger people (and for other health conditions),” she adds. “We would need to see more research.”

Since it’s easy to remember and provides a decent incentive for some, 10,000-a-day is a mantra Stamatakis, too, isn’t overly keen to dismiss. “It’s not about moving people away” from a benchmark, he says, however apocryphal it might be. “It’s about giving people more options. So the 10,000 steps per day, provided that about 3,500 to 4,000 are at a brisk or fast pace, it’s a really nice target.” For him, though, the spotlight is on walkers’ pace and intensity as much as on their daily volume.

“What we found is that brisk and fast pace is associated with quite large reductions in cardiovascular mortality, and all-cause mortality — especially for upper-middle-aged and older people.” Which is all very neat: More brisk = less risk. The slight wrinkle, of course, is determining what exactly counts as “brisk.” The speeds at which people walk — along with their perceptions of what counts as a purposeful march versus a leisurely saunter — will vary widely depending on age, weight, general fitness and size of sandwich they’ve just eaten. 

To adjust for this, Stamatakis’ analysis relied on participants’ own subjective assessments of their own pace. “Only the fast pace was defined in kilometers per hour” — said to be “at least 4 kilometers per hour” — “everything else was just ‘slow,’ ‘average,’ ‘fairly brisk.’” The idea was to align the subjects’ exertion levels according to the “relative intensity” of their walking styles. “If I’m very unfit and you are very fit — you do sports, you do high-intensity interval training and I do nothing — and we are the same age, both male, matched for all other characteristics, 4.5 kilometers per hour could be a struggle for me,” he explains. “I’ll huff and puff quite seriously. For you, it would be a stroll. So that’s why relative intensity, and this subjective pace, is more useful in a way, than absolute intensity.”  

He points to a very recent paper that used textual analysis on 35 studies in an attempt to find a consensus for what “average” walking speed means (an average for “average,” essentially). What the authors’ exhaustive calculations arrive at is: “an average speed of 1.31 meters per second, a cadence of 116.65 steps per minute, and an oxygen consumption of 11.97 [milliliters per kilogram of bodyweight per minute]” — this, they say, generally meets or exceeds the usual public health thresholds for moderate-intensity activity.   

For Stamatakis, whose first concern is to make all the science an intelligible incentive for as many of us as possible, what all the research translates to is: “Huffing and puffing a bit.” For the moderate-intensity we should be aiming for, “This is a good indicator. It’s easy to communicate because people understand. For people who have trackers and for those who are a bit more serious about it, you can also think about it as steps per minute.” In the language of step-tracking, he suggests “around 100 steps per minute, which is nice and round and easy to remember — that’s ‘moderate intensity.’ And that corresponds roughly to perhaps an average to fast pace. And over 120 to 130 steps per minute, that for most people, would be vigorous intensity.”

Hit that kind of range for about 3,500 to 4,000 steps per day, he says, and “for most people, that will be enough to meet the World Health Organization’s physical-activity recommendations.”

How to Tweak Your Walking Week

Again, Thomas Jefferson was two centuries ahead of the wearables curve here. On his pedometer-assisted marches around Paris, he too zoned in on walking pace as the metric that was key to his vitality. Among his papers from the 1780s, he jotted notes recording his “winter” pace: From the “Statue Lou. XV. to Chat. Thuilleries [sic]” he noted that it took him 475 “double steps”; “Grille to Neuilly — 2430,” etc. Calculating that his average stride gave him “1735 steps to the mile,” timing his trips and averaging them out, he concluded, “I walk then at the rate of 4 3/20 miles or 4 miles 264 yards an hour.” Which was bang on 120 steps per minute: A “vigorous intensity,” according to 21st-century science. (Further lengthy calculations revealed that his “summer pace” was an even speedier 142.9 steps per minute.) We’ll never know how much of a difference this blistering pace made to the great man’s physiology, but it’s worth noting that in his day, surviving to the age of 83 wasn’t a bad outcome.

Modern researchers also concur on the other Jeffersonian notion that another effect of walking “is to relax the mind.” According to Lee, even without 18th century Paris as a backdrop, “Physical activity including walking improves cognitive function, reduces anxiety and depression risk, and improves sleep and quality of life.” And a 2014 Stanford study found evidence that going for a walk boosts creative thinking, saying, “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.” 

“The other motive,” says Stamatakis, is “you walk fast, you’ll get there faster! Everyone complains about how time-poor they are. It will save you time!” As far as Stamatakis is concerned, “This is the future of physical activity and exercise: Engineering it back into daily living.” An example might be avoiding the elevator at work. “Second- and third-floor elevator trips are completely pointless,” he says. “Stair-climbing, by default, will mean you will reach vigorous intensity for a short period of time, no matter how fit you are — three, four, five flights of stairs? It’s guaranteed.”

Spot the opportunities that exist in your regular day to quicken your pace and your heart rate, he says, and “simply modulate the intensity of your daily physical activities.” Park the car a few blocks from your destination, or on your morning walk to the train station or bus stop “maximize the walking pace to over 120, 130 steps per minute for a few minutes. It could be a 10- or 15-minute walk where you maximize walking pace for a couple of minutes, two or three times.” 

There and back, he points out, would be six minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per day. Multiply that by five working days a week, and “that’s 30 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity,” says Stamatakis. “This is almost 40 percent of the weekly requirement, according to the WHO and [several countries’] departments of health public-health guidelines. Forty percent! We haven’t spent any extra time. We’ve just made a very subtle adaptation of the way you go from A to B.”

Manageable, easy to commit to and utterly cost-free, it’s the ultimate fitness plan: 3,500 steps to long-term health (every day, at a moderate to fast pace). And for everyone who’s been conscientiously tracking their footwork against a much higher daily target, there are very good reasons not to dial that down in any way — though it’s never nice to discover you’ve been laboring under a misapprehension. For that, 10,000 apologies.