A Year of Walking

A pedometer made walking into a game: the goal of increasing my count came to overrule my default work-avoidance setting.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted October 23, 2015 in Blog (Last Updated January 20, 2016)

Contents

1The Pedometer
2Why I Started
3Standing Desk
4Upward Trend
5Steady Increase
6One Year On

One year ago, at a health conference in Toronto, I received a pedometer as part of my attendee swag bag. Curious about how much I walked in a day, I strapped it onto my belt and decided to start tracking my daily step counts.

1 The Pedometer

The pedometer is a Piezo SC-StepRX model, which advertises a "medical grade piezoelectric mechanism" and seems like a pretty solid product. I haven't particularly done a lot of research to see how it measures up to other models, but at least one published academic study concludes, "This study demonstrates that the SC-StepRx pedometer is a valid tool for the measurement of moderate and vigorous physical activity in children and youth."

One handy feature is that it keeps track of the past 34 days, so if you forget to record a day's results, you can always go back. I also like the fact that it clips on your belt and has an additional safety strap with an alligator clip, which has saved me from losing it on more than one occasion.

It certainly seems to be quite accurate. I've taken walks where I counted my steps and when I compared the stepcounter, it was within a few steps of what I counted.

At the same time, it doesn't seem inclined to register stray movements as steps. It appears to need up-and-down and back-and-forth movement to count a step. I don't drive much, but in any case the pedometer doesn't seem to register bumps in the road while driving, so I don't earn "phantom" points during the times I'm jostling around on Hamilton's streets.

Very, very occasionally, it seems to get hung up and stops counting steps, but that has only happened a few times.

2 Why I Started

As for why I decided to start using it, aside from the obvious reason that I had nothing to lose by wearing a pedometer I had received for free, I'm a strong believer that if you want to manage something, you need to measure it. The mere act of tracking a given measurement tends to draw your attention to it and motivate you to take action to move the results.

So I started wearing it every day and tracking how much I walked. At first, my stepcounts weren't all that impressive. Other than days when I went for a run, I was averaging less than 10,000 steps a day - sometimes far less.

Then I injured my foot on November 11 and had to stop running altogether for a few weeks. I was walking slowly and deliberately to avoid limping, and I was managing just 6-7,000 steps a day. Mediocre!

Since I wasn't running (or running much, even when I started again), I committed myself to walking more. Having a daily recording of how I was doing allowed me to try out techniques for increasing my amount of walking and noting which ones worked well.

I made a point of walking to work every day. That's a two-kilometre trip, so walking to work and back is 4,000 or so steps right off the top. Previously, I would tend to ride my bike to work because it meant I could sleep in an extra ten minutes.

3 Standing Desk

I also had a stand-up desk and hadn't really been making very effective use of it. I decided to set it permanently in standing mode and commit to being upright the entire day. This produced several changes, most of them positive.

  • At first, I would be tired and sore at the end of the day. My legs and the small of my back would ache, and I felt exhausted. However, I had fully acclimatized to standing within a month.

  • Because I was already standing, I became more inclined to walk away from my desk, whether to get a drink of water, meet with a colleague, or walk around the block to clear my head.

  • I started taking the stairs. It's 94 stairs from the ground floor to my office, and when I first started taking the stairs I'd be fairly out of breath by the time I finished. It gradually became easier, and I've had to seek out taller staircases, like the various Escarpment Stairs in Hamilton, to wind me.

  • I could practice the 100-Up Drill, which really helped both my injury recovery and my running form. I even taped a line in front of my desk so I could make sure I was landing in the right spot.

  • I often wear noise-cancelling headphones so I can concentrate. I've found that electronic music is great for focusing on writing code, but an ancillary benefit is that I find myself moving to the rhythm and dancing in place, which may prevent some of the problems that go with standing for long periods.

  • I also noticed that when my grooving became vigorous and incorporated steps and hip movement, my pedometer would register some of the movement as stepping. Since I was upright and moving actively, I decided to allow it to contribute toward my daily total.

One possible negative is that standing all day with plantar fasciitis may have delayed my recovery. However, over the longer term I have become so comfortable with a standing (and walking, and dancing, and so on) that I actually can't imagine sitting again. I don't know how I did it for so long, slouching for hours, taking shallow breaths with my spine curved and my chest sunken.

4 Upward Trend

As I introduced more and more of these activities into my routine, my daily stepcounts started trending upward, also boosted by my recovering running distance. Even when I was still running short distances, I tried to pad the workout by adding walking before and after the run.

Early this year I also started incorporating bike rides into my routine, and I noticed that an hour of hard cycling would register as around 7,000 steps on my pedometer. It seems to register the pedaling action of my legs and hips as steps, which seems fair to count. In addition, 7,000 is around the same number of steps as an hour of brisk walking, so I decided to include these in the total as well.

I've also become progressively more inclined to walk for as many errands as possible. Whereas I might have hopped on my bike or a Hamilton Bike Share to go to the grocery store after work, I started walking the full distance instead, adding a few kilometres to my daily commute.

I also became a lot more willing to make trips instead of avoiding them. Even for something as simple as taking the food waste out to the green bin, I'll make three or four trips with various plates and bowls rather than dumping everything onto one plate in order to get out of extra walking.

It became a game: the goal of increasing my stepcount for the day came to overrule my default work-avoidance setting. When getting ready to go to bed at night, if I was close to my target for the day I would literally walk around the room racking up steps until I hit the goal.

5 Steady Increase

Over the past twelve months, my average daily stepcount has steadily increased from less than 10,000 to more than 20,000. Here's a chart of every daily total with a linear trendline for the past year:

Steps per day with trendline, 2014-10-23 - 2015-10-22
Steps per day with trendline, 2014-10-23 - 2015-10-22

A graph of weekly totals shows the same general upward trend through the expected variation from week to week. (Note: the two very low weeks around 2014-52 are an artifact of the weekly grouping function in the database I used, as it groups December 28-31 as a week and January 1-3 as a new week.)

Steps per week
Steps per week

For the past several weeks I seem to have plateaued around 170,000 steps a week, and to be honest that seems like a pretty reasonable peak. As the weather gets colder it might even decline slightly, especially as my weekly cycling distance goes down.

On the other hand, I am signed up for the 30 km Around The Bay Road Race next April and plan to continue running steadily longer distances through the winter. I also plan to continue commuting on foot and going for brisk walks on days when it's too lousy out to cycle.

6 One Year On

The pedometer, now a year old, still seems to be holding up nicely despite some visible wear and tear. I had the battery replaced in October, not because the old one died but because we were leaving to go to Paris for a week and I became paranoid that the battery would die when we were there. Paris is an exceptionally walkable city and I wanted to know just how much walking we actually did there.

So over exactly a year of tracking how much I walk, I have taken a total of 6,142,895 steps for a year-long average of 16,830 steps a day. That total includes walking, running, vigorous dancing, aerobic exercise and cycling and, duh, I haven't been taking it to the paint store and attaching it to the paint can shaker.

Pedometer count for October 16, 2015
Pedometer count for October 16, 2015

Here's to another year of putting one foot in front of the other!