Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 May

Why We Don’t Walk Anymore (plus a Primal Health Challenge)

How many steps do you walk every day? Do you hit 10,000 steps, which experts recommend and is about 5 miles’ worth? Do you match the daily walking of a Hadza man or woman (8.3 or 5.5 km/day, respectively)? If you’re anything like the average American, you’re doing 5,117 steps a day, well shy of the 10,000 step mark and flirting dangerously with a formal sedentary classification. But we’re not alone (though we’re the worst). Of the four industrialized countries studied, not a single one found the mark. The Australians seem to come close, walking 9,695 steps a day. The Swiss follow with 9,650, and the Japanese are a bit further off with 7,168 steps per day. Contrast that with rural South African women, of whom just 11.9% can be classified as sedentary (under 5,000 steps a day) and for whom an average day means walking 10,594 steps (many of them done while carrying a load), or Amish aged 18-75 (PDF), who walk an average of 18,425 steps (men) or 14,196 steps (women) each day, and we’re all looking pretty darn sedentary.

Do we even need the cold hard statistics to know that we’re not walking nearly as much as we should? When I look out the window at 8 AM on a weekday and fail to see hordes of barefoot children walking uphill in knee-deep snow toward school (and uphill again on the way home), I know in my heart that walking is becoming a lost art in this country. But does it have to be like that? I don’t think so. Just take a look at a totally-fabricated-but-completely-plausible average daily schedule for an adult with a standard 9 to 5 job:

His alarm blaring (and eyes bleary), Ken Korg rolls out of bed and trudges to the bathroom. That’s 16 steps.

After brushing his teeth, flossing (if he remembers), and showering, he heads back to the bedroom to get dressed. That’s another 16.

From the bedroom to the kitchen to putter around making coffee, grabing some breakfast (bacon and eggs and a bowl of raspberries), and cleaning up is 40 steps.

He kisses his wife, packs his lunch, grabs his gym bag, and heads out the door to his car. That’s 50 steps.

He sits in his car for 45 minutes, never moving from the seated position. Zero steps.

He parks the car and walks to the office, which is located 300 yards away. At roughly 2.5 feet per step, that’s 360 steps.

He gets up from his desk several times before lunch, to make coffee (30 steps there, 30 back), to use the bathroom (45 steps there, 45 back), and to chat with a coworker (35 steps there, 35 back). That’s 220 steps.

For lunch, Ken likes to hit the company gym and eat afterwards at his desk. After walking to the gym (500 steps), he does a basic circuit, including an easy half-mile warmup on the treadmill (1000 steps) and walking to and from various weight stations (500 steps). That’s 2500 steps, including the 500 back to the office.

It’s 100 steps to an afternoon meeting in an adjacent building, and 100 back. 200 steps.

Ken’s off at five o’clock. He pops in to a colleague’s office to confirm their dinner date later that week (30 steps), then heads to his car (360 steps), for a total of 390 steps.

He stops by the market for a few things. They’re having steaks and grilled asparagus tonight. It’s a 100 yard walk from his car to the store (120 steps). Once inside, he wanders around the aisles (1,500 steps) for a bit, pays for his stuff, and returns to the car (120 steps). That’s 1,740 steps.

Ken gets home and goes directly to the kitchen to drop off the groceries. That’s 45 steps.

He grabs some salt, some pepper, assorted spices, some matches, and heads outside to start the charcoal and prep the steaks and asparagus for grilling. This takes about 80 steps.

After dinner and cleanup (30 steps), Ken and the fam take the dog out for a short, leisurely walk around the neighborhood. They do a mile and a half (3,000 steps), for a total of 3,030 steps.

That’s pretty much it for Ken. There’s some miscellaneous movement around the house, but nothing crazy. Let’s say another 200 steps before bed, for a grand total of 8,887 steps. That’s over 3,000 more steps than the average American takes, and in my eyes, that seems like a pretty easy day of walking. Nothing too strenuous, no dedicated lengthy walks or hikes. I may have been a little generous with the step counts, but it’s overall a manageable sum for an able-bodied adult, wouldn’t you say?

So why aren’t we hitting it? Why is the fictional character outdoing the general population? Why are between 25-35% of American adults completely inactive, meaning they work sitting down, drive everywhere sitting down, and sit down at home?

The main problem is that modern life isn’t made for walking. Though it isn’t true for everyone living within its borders, particularly in dense urban centers, the US (and other industrialized nations, increasingly) is a car country. We drive to work. We drive to the grocery store. We drive our kids to school. We drive to a fitness center to go walk around a track or on a treadmill. We drive because everything is spread out. We drive because our cities aren’t built with pedestrians in mind, because it isn’t always safe to walk. We drive because half the residents in our neighborhood don’t see a need for sidewalks and actively resist their construction. We drive because that’s just what you do, because “all my friends have their licenses already,” because “walking is for poor people.” Oh, and we drive because walking is tiring, dude, and the car is right there. In short, we drive because we no longer have to walk. Walking – real walking, for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time – has become an elective activity.

And we rarely elect it anymore.

That’s really too bad, because walking is good for our general wellbeing. It’ll help you lose body fat, if you’re into that sort of thing, and the age-old bodybuilder trick to lean out is an early morning walk on an empty stomach (supplemented, of course, with stringent dieting, heavy lifting, and smart supplementation). But it’s also good for your brain, your fitness, your memory, your longevity, your blood pressure, and your general health. From a previous post, see this short snippet of potential health benefits associated with regular walking to get an idea:

So, obviously, walking more is a good thing. That brings me to a challenge. It’s a short one – just a week long – but it’s important. Crucial, even. And I hope you’ll accept it.

I have this niggling feeling that you guys – my whole cow-sourcing, veggie-fermenting, standup-workstation-constructing, type-of-cooking-oil-inquiring Primal readership – still aren’t getting in your five hours a week of low-level activity. Are you? Be honest with yourselves. Do you measure up to Ken Korg, the Australians, the Japanese, the Hadza, or the Amish?

Let’s take a poll. Be brutally honest.

How many hours of low-level aerobic activity (walking, hiking, light cycling, swimming, etc.) do you get each week?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Well? How’d you do?

Not so great, huh?

To rectify this situation and show you what you’ve been missing, I want you to spend at least one dedicated hour every day (yes, I’m bumping it up a notch) engaging in low-level aerobic activity – walking, cycling, hiking, rowing, swimming, or a mix of all of them. Just log that hour (and more, if you want) every single day. Walking around the mall or grocery store or to and from the bathroom don’t count toward your total. This has to be a solid hour of slow moving, preferably unbroken but splitting up the hour into two blocks works, if that’s easier.

I also want you to track your results. Remember last week’s fasting Q&A, where I mentioned using a logbook and tracking/writing down your results? Do the same thing for this challenge.

As you progress through the week, rank your energy level, mood, general sense of wellbeing each day, restfulness, or sense of productivity from 1-10.

If you’re able to, track an objective marker, like blood pressure or waist size. Since this is just a weeklong challenge, these objective measurements may not change much, if at all, but they’ll likely start to shift if you stick with the daily regimen.

If you have or want one, a pedometer would be a fun way to get immediate objective results. I guarantee if you get that hour of solid movement in, you’ll hit 10,000 steps without a problem.

If you must, walk on a treadmill. Heck, walk around your house like a crazy person. While it’d be ideal to walk outside, preferably purposefully through space and time, say on a wooded path or city street, what we’re ultimately after is the basic mechanics of bipedal movement. Lift foot, fall forward, catch your descent with lead foot, lift back foot, repeat. That is the premier Primal human movement pattern for which all of us are well-suited (injuries and preexisting conditions excluded, of course), and which many of us have forsaken – to our detriment.

Let’s knock that off. Let’s walk (or cycle, or swim) for an hour every day. Can you do that? I’m going to do it. Who’s with me?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Although I understand that (after reading everything here from Mark’s post to the slate 4-series monograph) European cities are build in a more pedestrian-friendly way than most USA ones here we are starting to suffer from the same lack of walking problems.

    Where I live my colleagues and me use to go to work by underground/ bike most of the times, but we are just very very fortunate to be able to ride a bike to work. Here bike commuting is not so well implemented and we lack special bike lanes (here being northern Spain). However, there was a “movement” sort of some years ago where townsfolk from different places were asking to link the villages via a bike lane, and thus far it has worked wonders. Perhaps that kind og thing would work for the ones of you living in smaller suburbs!

    P.S: Unrelated question, but I am SO curious about this little detail…. Do you guys really brush and floss your teeth -before- breakfast and not after it?

    Alba wrote on May 3rd, 2013
  2. Best way of all time I’ve found to maintain toned legs and avoid ever gaining too much weight even when eating badly? Walk—- a lot—— due to complete lack of a car.

    Half the problem with exercising in general is that we don’t actually need to do it. The entire world around us has been designed with cars in mind, not the constant walking of ancient cities. Sometimes you need a car to get to far-off places, but in a city like D.C. with buses and an elaborate Metro system— there’s no excuse for me (And no other option) not to walk everywhere else.

    This combined with a daily light jog/sprint/walk for thirty minutes every other day, and a Primal diet…and I should be in the best shape of my life. 😉 That, and it turns out seaweed tastes really really good. Going to walk up to the grocery store and retrieve it at next opportunity.

    Kelly wrote on August 19th, 2013
  3. I walk quite a bit on my job, but most people are stuck in one spot all day. When I was a kid we walked to the store, walked to the tv to change the channel, walked and run to play, walked to explore.. Kids and adults today don’t do this very often anymore.. they have groceries delivered, use a remote, play video games, and don’t get outdoors to enjoy the fresh air.. We have become slaves to innovation.

    Damon Lee wrote on May 30th, 2014
  4. Interesting…

    Tpezmet wrote on March 15th, 2015
  5. I think this varies a lot from place to place. I live in a city in Europe and don’t own a car, and so I walk to work, walk to the grocery store, etc. Sometimes I take the bus if I don’t have time but in general I walk a lot. However, I have never really felt that walking is exercise!

    Apple wrote on July 23rd, 2015
  6. This seems ridiculous to me, I live in England and I probably do around 18,000 steps a day, many of which are pulling,pushing or carrying heavy cages/loads plus doing 5 miles cycling at differing intensity. 5000 steps a day gives the impression that all Americans (going by the main focus of this article) are just waking to and from work once a day.
    I’m no health nut I don’t go to the gym I enjoy my food, I’m not obese but could probably stand to lose a few pounds and I manage to smash this without ever trying….but my actual point is this can’t be accurate…5000 sounds way too little

    Keith wrote on October 2nd, 2015
  7. Manhatten and its most populous other buroughs of new york city were made for walking. NYC is built densely like most cities should be. Thus you have more self sufficient neighborhoods or areas. And if you can’t walk there’s always buses and subways and cabs.

    Once central Los Angeles was densely populated, you had sidewalks, and grocery stores, the barber, the doctor, the whore, the church, were within walking, cab or bus distance. Were talking like early 20th century.

    Since the National Defense Highway Act of 1955, Los Angeles became a sprawling mess for the sake of the automobile and trucking industry.

    Most cities and towns in the US have become this way. the downtowns and mainstreets are either slums or there like ghost towns. Even malls are dying. the big box and strip mall development at the thruway exits has killed life without a car. its very sad

    btw: This is very rare for the past 20 yrs. We had a locally owned grocery story in our old working and middle class neighborhood. It was there for probably 50 years so i was told. It had produce, canned food, a deli, everything you can get at these idiotic super markets. they made home made ice cream in summer. it was great, no air pumped into it. I didn’t mind paying maybe a quarter to one fifth more in lieu of them not making profit via moving more groceries of the super market. but the stupid neighbors and others who knew how good the store was sold out to the car because they think they are really benefitting economically from buying from the cheaper per item super markets. what idiots

    Just 2 years ago it went out of business. You know what that store space is used for today? a fucking martial arts school for kids which is used at most 25 hours per week. what a waste of space.

    ymous anon wrote on December 10th, 2015
  8. I lost my suv 2 years ago along with my job, as a result I walk everywhere and occasionally use public transportation. I live in Jacksonville, Florida where the public transportation is terrible considering it is the largest city land wise in the continental USA. Most people find it is more of a necessity to drive than it is to walk because a block here can be as long as 3/4 mile. I was a gym head but would bulk up very easily, but now I more streamlined from my forced form of exercise.

    GAB wrote on April 7th, 2016

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!