“I Tried Everything to Get More Steps in My Day. Here’s the Old-School Hack That Actually Worked”

Photo: Stocksy/Gillian Vann
I miss the smug feeling my Fitbit used to give me. Living in a dense, walkable city like New York, it was easy to rack up the miles—even on days when I skipped the treadmill. I walked everywhere under two miles: work, Whole Foods, the bank. My mom would call me from North Carolina, bragging about her step count. Step count? Please. I think in miles, I'd think to myself, priding myself in not knowing how steps calculate out.

But now that I moved down south to be closer to home, I no longer have to walk anywhere. In fact, I hardly walk anywhere at all, partly because I now work from home (and thus don't have a commute). My Fitbit numbers became so low (miles and steps) that I stopped wearing it on the days that I didn't work out because it depressed me.

For years, having the privilege of living in a walkable city allowed me to ignore all the headlines about the importance of movement. Suddenly, I was Googling ways to be more active during the day and talking to pros to figure out what else I could do. It's been three months now, and I think I've figured out some lifestyle hacks that work—as well as some that definitely don't. I'm sharing my intel here, in case it helps you—my fellow friends who have to rely on your car, and not your feet, to get around.

Why regular movement (not just exercise) is important

My first thought was it would be easiest just to make my workouts longer. "I'll just take five extra miles on!" I thought to myself before starting a run. Well, as you probably guessed, this didn't exactly work out—I got tired. (Shocking, right?) Running between three and five miles was already part of my regular workout, so making the leap to eight to ten wasn't only impossible for my physically, I also didn't have the time to consistently do it.

Making my workout longer so I could get away with being more sedentary throughout the day is a moot point, anyways. When I called up Andrew Rundle, MD—who studies the health effects of living a sedentary lifestyle—he tells me exercising and movement are like apples and oranges. "Time spent doing sedentary behaviors is not the same thing as low physical activity," he says.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week. (This translates into about 7,500 steps—not the 10,000 number that has seemingly been the gold standard for so long.) "In order for your cardiovascular system to benefit, you really need to have your heart rate up," he says. (This isn't always true of walking, unless you're power walking at a brisk pace.) And then there's of course all the other benefits to working out, such as endorphins, maintaining a healthy weight, and living longer.

How exactly is that different from movement? "If you and I both do the same workout in the morning, but then you sit all day and I move throughout the day, our health outcomes will be different," Dr. Rundle says. He says that all the small movements throughout the day—taking a 15 minute walk to buy lunch, standing during a meeting instead of sitting—works your muscles at least a little. And that translates into longterm health benefits when done regularly: A recent study found that even just regular bursts of movement (20 seconds of stair-climbing, for example) can help improve cardiovascular health.

It's this thinking that sparked Google Fit's most recent update. The app gives users goals for both movement and heart points, the latter of which is more closely linked to exercise. “Steps don’t capture the full picture,” says Margaret Hollendoner, a senior product manager for Google Fit. “We’ve worked with the American Heart Association to introduce Heart Points, which helps users achieve the right amount of intensity and activity so they can live their healthiest lives.”

Science has been clear that not just exercise, but movement is important. Living in a walkable city lowers the risk for diabetes and obesity. On the other hand, living a sedentary lifestyle can kill you. So if longer workouts aren't the answer for everyone not living in a walkable city, what is?

Apps can be helpful—but I wasn't a huge fan

Clearly, I needed to get more physical activity into my daily routine beyond my morning workout. So I decided to try two movement apps—Stand Up! and Move Reminder—to help incentivize me to move more during the eight hours a day I'm sitting in front of my computer for work. I tried each app for a full week to see how they helped me.

The concept of Stand Up! is simple: It periodically reminds you throughout the day to stand up for five minute periods to help encourage movement. The timer went off eight times—about once an hour—although you can customize it depending on your own goals and schedule. Making the simple switch from sitting to standing didn't interrupt my workflow at all, which made it easy to stick to. But at the end of each day, I still felt like I hadn't moved much all day. When I called Dr. Rundle to get his thoughts, he confirmed it likely wasn't doing much for me. "I mean, it's better than nothing, but that's a minuscule change," he says.

Move Reminder upped the ante a bit. The app's default settings—which are adjustable—set the goal of walking 50 steps an hour. "Fifty steps was just the magic number for me," the app's developer, Don Nguyen, tells me as to why it auto-sets at this particular marker. "I found that 50 steps was little enough that I could not make an excuse to not follow it. But setting it too high discourages me because I'll feel like it's too much effort."

While I liked the idea of Move Reminder—and that it required more effort than Stand Up—it was harder for me to execute because, well, it required more effort. There were times when I was totally in the zone working away (or on the phone, or meeting with someone), and I'd get my reminder to take 50 steps. I also wasn't sure where to walk to. Walking over to get water was only about ten steps, so I also had to think of ways to add to it without looking like a weirdo wandering around for no reason. Dr. Rundle also didn't think that the activity levels were very impressive, either.

The old-school trick that actually worked for me

Game-ifying movement just didn't work for me. Frustrated, I called up integrative medicine practitioner Pooja Amy Shah, MD, for advice. "The super big reason movement is important is for mind-body wellness," she says. "You feel like crap when you sit for too long. And when you move, you tend to feel better." Instead of trying to fit movement into my day unnaturally—doing bursts of movement at the sound of a buzzer—she encouraged me to change my lifestyle so that it encouraged more movement naturally. "This is going to sound obvious, but taking a 15 minute walk on your lunch break just to move your body and feel the sunshine is part of that mind-body wellness that's so important," she says.

This didn't mean Dr. Shah didn't have her own movement hacks. "When I brush my teeth, I do chair pose against the wall, which activates the core. After two minutes, you'll be shaking! And when I get ready in the morning, I put on music and dance around as I do it." Then, there were the old-school hacks, like parking far away, and doing laps while grocery shopping, picking up foods that are far away from each other instead of closer together.

Of all of her advice, the tip that made the biggest difference to me was the afternoon walk. Yes, it's basic. Yes, it was advice I'd heard many other times from other health experts. But now that I wasn't walking as much in my day-to-day routine, I loved my afternoon walk—it helped me de-stress while feeling like I was doing something really good for my body. I felt so much better about my daily activity levels once I started incorporating it into my routine.

While I still don't feel as "healthy" as I did while living in New York City, finding creative ways to be active while doing tasks I was already doing—and committing to afternoon walks—has improved how I feel about myself. I've even started wearing my Fitbit again. Now that it's, you know, no longer mocking me.

Here are some more ways to incorporate movement into your workday. Plus, how to meditate while you walk.

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