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How to Get 10,000 Steps in During COVID-19

Experts on how to embrace movement during quarantine

With Sandy Younan RD, Kelley Vargo MPH, and Paula Freedman PsyD

Getting in just 4,400 to 7,500 steps per day is still beneficial to your health.

We’ve all heard the advice: 10,000 steps per day will keep the doctor away—or at least it will help keep us healthier, more mobile, and at lower risk for certain diseases and conditions. But with everyone staying inside their homes due to COVID-19 quarantine, getting any movement at all can feel like both a hazard and a chore. If you’re struggling to move, you’re not alone.

Sheltering in place has nearly eliminated most of our daily routines, which include the kind of everyday actions that help us burn calories and keep our hearts healthy. You’d be surprised at how beneficial it is to simply walk to the local grocery or meet up with friends for a stroll a few times per week, especially if you’re already managing endocrine conditions that affect your metabolism, such as hypothyroidism.

With step-tracking apps like Pacer setting 10,000 step challenges during quarantine, you have to wonder: where did the number 10,000 come from — and should we really be focusing on getting those steps in daily?

Origin of the 10,000 steps

The number comes from a Japanese company that created a personal-fitness pedometer called Manpo-kei, or 10,000 steps meter, back in the 1960s. This was likely the beginning of the 10,000-step goal. And, we do know that getting 10,000 steps in each day can help you burn about 2,000 to 3,500 extra calories each week. Given that 3,500 calories equal a pound of body weight, walking 10,000 steps per day sounds like a smart goal.

There’s also some contradictory evidence. Getting just 4,400 and 7,500 steps per day — not nearly 10,000 — is still beneficial to your health, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine, while another study from Brigham Young University suggested walking 10,000 steps or more isn’t really an effective tool for weight loss.

In short, the 10,000 steps goal is both arbitrary and encouraging. It may not be the holy grail of evidence-based health advice, but it certainly helps to keep us on our toes (literally!). You can use the goal of 10,000 steps as a general reminder to keep moving, and as a foundational goal for overall health, especially in quarantine.

Movement matters — now more than ever. “Despite the fact that we are quarantined, it is not a universal pass to be sedentary,” says Kelley Vargo, MS, MPH. “The latest science has shown that this virus is synergistic with preexisting conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. We know that just as physical activity can help mitigate and prevent these non-communicable diseases, physical inactivity can exacerbate them.”

The goal, especially during quarantine, is to support your basal metabolic rate (BMR) — otherwise known as the rate at which we burn calories. Your BMR revs up just by existing and moving about as normal. Your body type, size, lifestyle, age, and other factors determine it.

Get creative with movement

According to Sandy Younan, RD, Dietitian & Founder of The Dish on Nutrition, you’re going to have to get creative when it comes to movement. You might want to do a combination of solitary walks outdoors and indoor exercises, aiming for a minimum of about 30 minutes of movement per day as a baseline, then build up from there.

When you can’t get to a gym or take a group workout class (hello, accountability!), it can be hard to exercise on your own in your comfy home space. If that’s the case, it might be easier for you to integrate movements throughout the day.

First off, Younan recommends taking dance breaks. You might spontaneously dance for 15 or 20 minutes each day (or a few times each day). By putting on your favorite music and just moving — without doing any specific exercise — you’ll be boosting your cardiac health and cognitive function. According to studies, dancing may be the best form of exercise, as it not only boosts fitness, but also releases the feel-good hormones endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.

In addition to walking a few laps in your garden or around the block while social distancing (there are also YouTube videos that specifically help you achieve 10,000 walking steps from within your own living room), Younan suggests:

  • jumping jacks during commercial breaks while watching TV
  • walking up and downstairs at home (intentionally doing it a certain number of times daily and then gradually increasing it, just as you would on a stair-master)
  • pacing while talking on the phone with friends and family
  • jogging in place while watching your favorite show or movie
  • downloading a workout app such as Aaptiv or FitBit.

Vargo recommends taking mini-breaks for movement while you work from home. It can help to:

  • create a standing desk
  • stop work for movement breaks between tasks
  • go outside even for a short time
  • set a timer to get some steps in every hour
  • do chair exercises, such as arm circles and tricep dips

If you don’t have access to a home gym or even a set of weights or resistance bands, that’s okay. You can get creative here, too, Younan says. You can use cans of soup, water bottles, or even wine bottles as weights. (Just be careful not to drop them!) If you have the means, you can order a few resistance bands, which can be used to up the ante on strength-training moves such as pushups, squats, and other leg workouts.

Think about housework as a way to get more movement in, too. Every physical thing we do adds up — and that includes gardening, scrubbing your bathtub, carrying laundry up and down the stairs, and tidying up. While these acts may feel like chores, thinking intentionally about how they can help us in the long-term is encouraging. Putting on your favorite music and dancing while cleaning can also make chores feel lighter and less cumbersome.

In the end, Varga says that movement is especially important for people living with obesity or endocrine disorders. “This time in quarantine is an opportunity to establish healthy physical behaviors, which can be done in the comfort of your own home. By setting up step goals, you can improve your health and thus your ability to be more resilient,” she says. “Start by making being active a priority and being intentional about it.”

Establish healthy habits during quarantine

During a global crisis that requires quarantining in your home away from others, the loneliness and anxiety of a “new normal” can lead to feelings of stuckness and depression. This, unfortunately, is normal — and you are not alone. Aside from movement, the CDC offers other ways you can support your own mental health by:

  • Taking breaks from consuming the news and social media or cutting yourself off from reading the news at a certain point.
  • Eating healthy, well-balanced meals and avoiding alcohol and drugs, especially as a coping mechanism 
  • Sleeping regularly and enough (you may want to establish a routine before bed to help you settle in and wind down)

In the end, though, healthy behaviors are all about maintaining your health and treating yourself with love and compassion. Getting movement in each day is important, but don’t shame yourself if you gain a little weight in quarantine or find yourself feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the thought of staying fit in a global pandemic.

As Paula Freedman, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, eating disorders, and addictive and compulsive behaviors, says, it’s important to focus not on your waistline, per se, but on establishing healthy and sustainable new routines.

“Try to develop self-compassionate rituals to do around the same time each day, such as a morning cup of coffee or tea, getting your steps in when you can, listening to your favorite podcast, or moving through a set of stretches or yoga poses,” Freedman says. 

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Maintaining Your Weight During Quarantine