Why a 10,000 steps a day challenge is bullshit and what to do instead

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In previous blogs, we’ve looked at what type of exercise is the best for weight loss and body shape change, and even what time of the day is best for exercise. If you’ve read these, you’ll be aware that we have talked about FIRE (Focused Intense Resistance Exercise) and ICE (Intense Cardio Exercise). If you’re not familiar with these types of exercise, be sure to read the blogs in the links above.

One aspect of exercise that we haven’t touched upon is LIA.

What is LIA?

LIA stands for Low Intensity Activity, and it’s an integral part of our training program at Imani Tribe Transformations. LIA can include walking, cycling, swimming, gardening, or any other activity that keeps you moving without the intense focus of cardio or resistance training. The most common form of LIA is walking.

The purpose and benefits of LIA

Most people think the sole purpose of LIA is to burn calories in order to lose weight. This explains why a lot of people sign up to 10,000 step challenges, and aim to get in as much movement as possible. While LIA does burn calories, its main purpose is to reduce stress and to aid recovery from more intense forms of activity. LIA is important because it helps you:

  1. switch off and reduce stress, which is a metabolic blocker
  2. recover from the more intense forms of exercise by keeping the body mobile, and promoting blood flow
  3. learn how to put yourself first
  4. build a healthy lifestyle habit that will snowball to other great habits that help you lose weight and keep it off.

For example, if you go for a walk first thing in the morning, you’re likely to come home, have a healthy breakfast and take a healthy lunch to work with you. You’ll be reducing stress so you’ll be more productive and happier during your day. You’ll also feel more confident because you know that you’re doing positive things for your health.

To fully understand how the snowball effect works, be sure to read our blog The snowball effect: Why small things add up to big weight loss.

If walking is LIA, what about the 10,000 steps challenge?

As we said, walking is one of the most common forms of LIA, so it would be easy to assume that joining the 10,000 steps a day bandwagon — like many weight loss programs recommend — is the best way to make sure that you build LIA into your week. However, making it your mission to walk 10,000 steps each day could sabotage your weight loss more than you know.

Here’s why.

Can increase stress instead of reducing stress

Focusing on ticking off 10,000 steps a day can easily become something on your ‘to-do’ list. If you’re a busy parent or run a business, this extra thing can quickly become a chore and cause excess stress. In addition, believing that you need a minimum of 10,000 steps for your movement to count contributes to the belief that you need to be perfect and tick these steps off every day, even though there will be days where it will be impossible to get 10,000 steps of movement. As we know, perfectionism also creates stress, which in turn, can act as a metabolic blocker preventing weight loss. Stress can also increase the likelihood of emotional eating or binge eating, which of course will sabotage your weight loss journey.

Leads to inconsistency

A lot of people feel that they need to go from 0 steps to 10,000 steps in one day, in order to lose weight. Doing too much, too soon increases the likelihood of injury and burnout. If you’re injured, you’ll need to take time out from your walking which means you’ll be inconsistent with it. If you find the task of achieving 10,000 steps too hard (because you haven’t built up to it), you’ll eventually give up. As we know, the best weight loss results come with consistency, not with periods of immense effort, dotted with periods of no activity.

Doesn’t teach you to prioritise yourself

Getting 10,000 steps relies on being more active during the day, which focuses on incidental exercise. While incidental exercise has its place, it doesn’t help you develop the habit of putting yourself and your needs first. In order to lose weight and keep it off, it’s important to learn to do this without feeling guilty, and without feeling you have to keep other people happy all the time. This means prioritising and scheduling time to do the things that will help you lose weight, rather than fit them in, ‘if you have time’.

Promotes dieting behaviours

When it comes to exercise, less is more. There is no need to spend hours of your day, every day exercising. To understand the impact exercise has on your weight, be sure to read our blog The truth the fitness industry won’t tell you about exercise.

The truth is many people are time-poor and may find it difficult to spend an hour exercising each day. Even if you could spend that much time being active, you can’t get 10,000 steps in an hour. People with a strong diet mindset are likely to engage in all or nothing thinking and believe that 10,000 steps is the be all and end all of weight loss, and are more likely to diet, to make up for the steps they’ve missed in their day. But as we know, diets don’t work. In fact, following food rules and restricting food, only adds to your weight problem. To fully understand the damage that diets do, read our blog How diets steal your health and happiness.

What happens when you focus on getting 10,000 steps a day?

Even if you are able to get 10,000 steps a day because you’re in a job where you’re on your feet all day, and move a lot, this still won’t give you the benefits that a structured, planned walk will give you. Let’s look at an example.

Danielle is a nurse who has always struggled with her weight. She works in a busy hospital and is always on her feet. It’s not unusual for her to clock up over 10,000 steps a day every time she has a shift. However, Danielle’s hospital is often short-staffed, making her already stressful job more stressful. The demands of her job make it hard for her to take a break, and it’s not uncommon for her to skip lunch and work through. By the time she finishes her shift, Danielle feels very stressed, is physically and emotionally exhausted, and is starving. On her way home, she often drives through a fast-food joint to grab a snack that will tide her over until she gets home. When she gets home, she usually flops on the couch with a glass of wine so she can unwind for the day. She feels like she deserves to rest and relax after achieving her step goal for the day.

In the example above, getting 10,000 steps is not helping Danielle with her weight loss. Her walking doesn’t relieve stress, or help her to switch off from the demands of her job. She’s also not learning to put her needs first, as she often skips lunch to keep working, which makes her so hungry she gets fast food on the way home. At the end of the day Danielle has a false sense of achievement because she has reached the goal of 10,000 steps. And her belief that’s all she needs to do helps her to justify drinking and sitting on the couch to unwind from the day.

While she may be getting 10,000 steps, Danielle is not reaping the benefits associated with LIA, so she will continue to struggle to lose weight. To make matters worse, focusing on 10,000 steps means she’s not seeing her blind spot relating to stress, which is actually contributing to her weight gain. It’s because Danielle is so stressed that she skips lunch, eats fast food, and unwinds with a glass of wine. The 10,000 steps a day won’t solve that problem. However, committing to regular, structured walks throughout her week, away from her work will help reduce stress, which will have a snowball effect on other aspects of her life.

 

Schedule your LIA and forget about 10,000 steps

It’s important to understand that the idea of getting 10,000 steps a day is very much based in diet culture. Just like cookie-cutter diet plans, the goal of 10,000 steps doesn’t take into account individual circumstances, fitness levels or mobility, nor does it factor in what a person’s weight loss goals are, or the habits that someone needs to develop in order to lose weight for good. In essence, it’s moving for the sake of moving, rather than exercising with a purpose.

When it comes to getting your LIA, the best option is to forget about the 10,000 steps a day model and schedule your LIA activity at regular times during your week, just as you would your FIRE and ICE training. At Imani Tribe Transformations, we encourage our clients to walk regularly, usually on the days they don’t have FIRE or ICE training, as this provides them with the active recovery from their more intense sessions, and ensures that they move their body on most days. To help build their habits of walking, we use the DATSTM Habit and Data Accountability Tool, which is part of our Diet Antidote Transformation System. This tool not only helps our members track their LIA, but helps them build habits and stay accountable with their walking.

Scheduling your LIA ensures that you learn to put your needs first, ensures you make time for it so it will actually happen, and that it becomes a habit. Simply setting a goal to ‘walk on most days’ won’t cut it, as there will always be something that crops up to prevent you from getting it done. However, if it’s in your weekly schedule, you’ll always get it done.

Benefits of scheduled and structured LIA

Remember, the purpose of LIA isn’t primarily to burn calories. It’s to help you relax, reduce stress and aid recovery from your more intense exercise sessions. That’s why a 2km walk at the end of the day is more beneficial than getting 10,000 steps during a stress-filled work day.

Structuring and scheduling your walks throughout the week will help you to:

  • relax, switch off and reduce stress, which will lead to better weight loss results
  • improve your mental health
  • learn to value yourself and your goals
  • prioritise yourself
  • build a habit that will stay with you for life
  • recover from your more focused training sessions, so you’ll be able to train better at your next session
  • improve your mobility, which will help during your training sessions
  • be consistent with exercise, which means better results.

Structured LIA also provides you with an opportunity to build up your walking over time and thereby reduce the risk of injury and burnout. For example, you might start with a 2km walk and then progress to 3km, 4km and then 5km. Or your might start by walking 2 days a week, and then increasing this to 3 and then 4 days a week. You can also progress your LIA by working to increase your pace. Progressing gradually means that you are more likely to be consistent with your walking, which will mean better weight loss results down the track.

Through our Habit and Data Accountability Tool, which is part of our DATSTM system each of our members has a structured LIA program where they increase their LIA in phases throughout the year. This tool is designed to give our clients the right tasks and action steps in a progressive, strategic and sustainable way so they can continue to progress and get results, and build better habits, without getting overwhelmed. It also allows them to track their progress and remain accountable.

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