For years 10,000 steps have been heralded as the benchmark for a healthy dose of daily activity. In reality, though, the number was a marketing strategy from a Japanese academic who invented a pedometer in 1964, and the NHS actually states that a 10-minute daily walk may well be enough to improve your health (and if better body composition is your goal, how many steps you should do a day to lose weight varies very much from person to person). Even so, I was keen for a walking challenge, and so I decided I’d take it upon myself to attempt to do 10k before 10am, for a week. Crazy? Me? How hard could it be? What could possibly go wrong?
Spoiler alert: Quite a bit if you, like me, wake up excited for when you can go back to sleep again. I am not a morning person, and even on a good day, getting out of bed is akin to raising the Titanic.
Thus it wouldn’t be a total lie to say that day 1 of my challenge was a complete disaster, but I prefer to call it Day Zero, or ‘My Day of Learnings’ for I had already failed by the time I woke up. How? It was 11am.
Instead, I spent the day, ironically, mostly stationary and thinking about walking around. ‘Anyone can get up and step, but it’s unlocking the motivation to do it,’ I scrawled on a notepad, feeling like a philosopher of movement rather than a journalist who needed to get to her feet and move around. From my horizontal vantage point, I decided to take a more scientific approach to the challenge, reflecting on what micro habits I needed to ditch or add in order to get to 10,000 steps before 10.
Like a lot of people, one of the first things I do when I wake up in the morning is look at my phone, have a scroll through social media, check my emails and WhatsApp, and then do puzzles; my latest obsessions come from the New York Times app, namely Wordle, Spelling Bee and their crosswords. Ironically I moved on to these brainteasers as I was hopelessly addicted to ScrabbleGo, to the point I started watching Scrabble tournaments on YouTube and studying two-letter words for fun. Puzzles done, I then feed my cats their breakfasts and medications, before rushing around as I suddenly realise that I have spent a massive chunk of time looking at a screen… and I need to get to the office.
The first learning: I needed to spring clean my morning routine. I put a time limit on WhatsApp, TikTok and Instagram, rationing myself to 15 minutes a day, and vowed to do puzzles at lunch, on my commute, before bed, or, *clutches pearls* maybe, not at all. I, personally, think breakfast is the worst meal of the day, so there was no time needed to allow for that before or after heading out for my daily walk.
Apart from chronic faffing, the other huge thing that was going to stop me from even giving this challenge my best shot was waking up late, or at least too late to get 10,000 steps in before 10am. I began to wish I was trying something a bit more relaxing, like walking 30 minutes every day for two weeks.
Learning 2; I realised that this isn’t a challenge for people who start work early, unless they’re in a role that involves a lot of walking around. For those who work a 9-5, they’re already on the back foot as they are losing a whole hour of stepping time to being sat down. For a couple of days, I would start work at 10 which should allow me to have a hard deadline for when I needed to have the steps clocked up, and hopefully a reasonable window to get them in.
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I’d also need to wake up ready to go, and that meant getting to bed early. By the end of Day Zero I had made a plan for several different ‘experiments’ to put into action across the next seven days, and was in bed sleeping by 9pm – this was one part of the challenge I had no issues with!
Day 1: Converting the faff
Waking up at 7, I channelled my faffing energy into the challenge, putting on my FitBit as soon as I opened my eyes, rather than scrabbling around looking for it just as I was about to step out of the door. It wasn’t a totally faff-free morning, and I did get distracted doing little life-admin tasks that I should have done the day prior. But, before I knew it, just by sorting out my cats’ breakfasts, making a coffee, and having a shower, I had clocked up 500 steps. I actually found this surprisingly motivating. ‘I’m a 20th of the way there!’ I crowed out loud, to no one in particular. Eager to keep the momentum going I headed out of the flat ready to start my first 10,000 steps before 10am experiment which I dubbed The Half and Half Commute.
The idea of this was to try and get 5,000 steps in on either side of my journey to work. I took a different route to usual, walking for over 30 minutes to one of the new Crossrail stations that has opened near my home. Then, arriving in central London, I would take the long route to the office and make it all the way to 10,000. Feeling smug about how many steps I added to the target by avoiding the stairs near the ExCel and taking a ramp, I eventually got to the train with 4,049 steps done. Not bad!
I actually didn’t have time to do 6,000 steps between Tottenham Court Road and the Women’s Health office in Leicester Square, and by the time 10am rolled round my total sat at 5,258. I really wanted to get to 10,000 as soon as possible, and bar asking colleagues if they had an under desk treadmill, I knew it would need to wait until lunchtime. As 1pm edged closer, I plotted out a ‘returns route’ that took me to a Post Office, a parcel drop shop, a couple of store on Oxford Street (all the places I needed to visit to do returns, see what I did there?) and Tesco to get a salad on the way back to my desk. By 2pm I saw my steps climb into five figures, and I felt elated.
Yes I had ‘failed’ the challenge by four hours, but at 10am my tally had been over 50% which I decreed was a good start. Tomorrow I would try The Half and Half Commute again but leave home earlier, allowing more time to wander aimlessly-with-purpose through the streets of London. Could that be an excuse for an 8pm bedtime, or even 7pm? The sloth in me said yes.
Day 2: Worst foot forward
Perhaps proving why I merely scraped a C in my science GCSE, after less than 24 hours, my experiment began unravelling rapidly. After 13,000 steps the day before, I woke up ready to beat that number, but the discovery of a huge blistered gash on the side of my foot meant that my tally at 10am was pitiful – and mostly earned from hopping or limping dramatically on one leg to my local pharmacy on a hunt for plasters.
With the challenge – and my foot – on ice, I decided to look more into the psychology of fitness challenges, hoping to learn more about motivation and consistency, which fitness expert and founder of MADE On Demand, Penny Weston confirmed are crucial elements of success.
She told me: ‘Consistency is arguably the most important component when it comes to accomplishing your goals. Not only does it help us to stay focused and form long term habits that will last into the future,from a physical perspective, programmes become disorganised and the body finds it much more difficult to adapt.
‘One of the biggest barriers for people tends to be fitting exercise into their hectic schedule. But no matter how busy your schedule is, it can happen. Tacking an exercise session – whether it’s walking or a HIIT workout – before your day becomes overloaded can help. You have the opportunity to aim all of your energy towards creating your healthiest, happiest self.
‘Consistency really is key to ensuring that you stay motivated and, importantly, confident about what you’re doing. It’s a critical driver for success – with anything as well as exercise.’
In a similar vein, research by the California Almonds Board earlier this summer found that half of Brits had given up on goals due to procrastination, wasting over 10 hours a month (20 minutes a day over 30 days), and a quarter of respondents blamed procrastination on low energy. And a huge 55% of people cited low energy as a barrier to achieving goals.
This really resonated with me, but away from mindset theories and data, I still wanted to get a handle on the “why” – aka the emotional, personal, reason – for getting up and doing this massive step quota, or anything really.
Some enlightenment came from my partner’s 9-year-old son. I recently went to the Pokemon World Finals to look for Christmas presents for him, and when I suggested that he and his Dad could enter next year’s Pokemon Go! tournament, I received an exasperated response.
‘Emma, those people have legendary, they get MewTwos. Our best CP is 3,000. They play every day. Our second best Pokémon does no damage. Its move is called yawn…’
He might as well have been speaking an alien language to me and I totally zoned out, only snapping back into the room when I heard him utter, ‘Slacking.’
‘Who’s slacking? Me?’
‘No, Slaking is the name of the best Pokemon we have!’
A big element of Pokemon Go! Is walking around looking for Pokemons and frantically tapping on a screen to battle them. If you were a serious player that would be a great reason to get up and walk around as early as possible as the more you play the more powerful you and your arsenal of cute pixel warriors become. But, as I am neither a schoolboy nor a gamer this ‘why’ didn’t resonate with me.
Instead I turned to my best friend Susie, who has two enormous dogs. Susie, an avid marathon runner who has been blessed with incredibly long legs is “dog mum’ to two mutts with a similar physique. Her lurchers, originally found abandoned around the outskirts of Newcastle, are bigger than Shetland ponies but run as fast as racehorses.
‘Before 10am? 12,000 easily,’ she yawned when I asked her what her average daily step count was. She added, ‘I am so tired.’
‘I’m not surprised!’ I replied. Poor Susie has to get up at 6am and walk the dogs individually before she logs on to start work at 9am, and while it does strike me as being a real pain in the arse, I know that I too would do anything to keep my own pets happy and healthy.
My cat sitter and professional dog walker (a job which definitely gets you up, out, and moving early), Luisa Stravino from Pet Buddy, agreed. She told me, ‘Unlike cats, dogs are high maintenance pets and will need those important walkies which, as amazing and fun as it is for them, it gets us up off the sofa and outside moving, increasing our heart rates, getting those endorphins flowing – and helping us to lose weight.’
With all this new intel swimming in my head and Compeeds holding my ravaged foot together, I had an inkling that the next ‘experiment’ on my list would be a success.
Day 3: Having a good reason
Not wanting to sound like a Mother Theresa from Wish type character, I genuinely love helping, and for years I have done a lot of fundraising for small, grassroots animal charities, and made a habit of donating regularly to food banks and charity shops.
Today I would be getting up and out early to donate bedding and toys to my local cat shelter and drop some books at the charity shop across the road at the same time – and it was really motivating. With a 45 minute walk each way plus time in the middle for drop off and chit-chat, I estimated that this would be a 2 hour step-test.
By the time I got home just before 10 I had close to 8,300 steps – my best attempt yet – and a sense of calm from having helped others.
Day 4: Treadmill time
Is there anywhere else as glorious as an air-conditioned gym during a heatwave? The idea of walking aimlessly on a treadmill is never enough to get me out of bed, but cold air? I was raring to go.
I wondered if it wasn’t just my humid, clammy flat that had me springing out of bed and racing for the door, or something more mystical. As part of my research-and-recovery day I had also spoken to my friend Francesca Amber about how many steps she has usually reached by 10am. As a single mum to two gorgeous twin toddlers and a creative 5-year-old, lie-ins are a rarity at her house. Her average 10am tally? 7,000.
Fran is one of the UK’s top podcasters, and presenter of the chart-topping Law Of Attraction Changed My Life. She suggested I add some bedtime mantras to my training plan, and while I did find it a bit hard to nod off thinking “I will wake up energised and ready to take 10,000 steps”, I certainly had.
After a good 90 minutes on a treadmill my boredom threshold had been reached – but I was still a few hundred shy of the magic 10k total. One of the benefits of doing the challenge on a machine was being able to change the speed and incline, and I mixed things up by pumping light dumbbells and stretching my upper back using an exercise band as I walked – both of which would be out of the question if I was pounding the pavement.
After leaving the cool climes of the gym and returning to the muggy London air I felt great that I had made my health a priority, even if I didn’t quite get to my target.
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Day 5: Skew the time frame
If I had a pound for every time I was told ‘just do the steps for 10pm not 10am!’ I would be able to buy a new cream bronzer right now. But my friends’ and colleagues’ encouragement to bend the rules did get me thinking outside the box.
I had a friend’s wedding reception to attend on Friday night and it was a given that it’d be a late one – and I’m no Cinderella. When the clock hits midnight, I am not scuttling home with only one shoe on, worrying about being up early the next day to do housework, ut-uh.
Could a late night dancing sesh give me an early boost for the penultimate day of my mission?
It was a good idea and on paper it worked. By the time I got home at close to 1:30am I had amassed nearly 3,000 steps. But, as with Day 1, I woke up long after 10am, thus unable to prove my hypothesis and derailing the challenge yet again.
Day 6: Wake up with excitement
The penultimate day of the challenge pushed forward on to the next day, it was time to try out my final “why”. I had seen how hobbies, pets, work, health, family and morality can be a good springboard for hitting 10,000 steps before 10am, but the best was still to come – having fun.
Now fun is subjective, and it’s likely that what is fun for you and fun for me are world’s apart – unless you love a car boot sale.
By 10am I had traipsed happily around a field in Buckinghamshire living my best Bargain Hunt fantasy, picking out
a load of unwanted tat a variety of bits and pieces which caught my eye. I made sure to park as far away from the entrance as possible, which definitely did its bit to help me rack up 9,000 steps in total.
One person’s trash is someone else’s treasure, and the same can be said for hobbies and adventures. What would get you leaping out of bed on a Sunday morning?
Day 7: Try to make it a habit
The last day of the 10,000 steps before 10am challenge came with it a great sense of reverence. For the past ten days – allowing for accidental lie-ins and hideous blisters – I felt like I had been on a physical and mental journey and today I felt determined to reach my final destination, 10,000 steps before 10am.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts I didn’t reach the hallowed figure – but I was still proud of myself for giving it my best shot.
As I watched the clock hands shift to 10:02am and beyond, I was reminded of something else Penny Weston said. ‘It can take a long time to develop that consistency, but when something becomes a part of your everyday life, it feels much less like a chore and much more like a given – and that’s when we see the true value of exercise.’
Working a decent walk into something I do almost daily, in this case my commute, has been a great way to build some consistency over a short period of time, and I am eager to maintain it.
And if that doesn’t work, I’m taking it as a sign from the universe it’s time to add a lively dog to my family of pets.
- Finding a ‘Why’ helped – was it the excuse to go to bed very early, or knowing I had things to do? From dropping off parcels to knowing I was helping causes close to my heart, being on a mission – no matter how trivial – helped get me out the door and on my way.
- Don’t faff – Without wanting to sound too ‘Molly Mae’ there really are 24 hours in the day, and it took this challenge to realise that I was squandering a good chunk of them looking at a screen. Whether it’s puzzles or social posts, remember “where your attention goes, energy flows”, so try and be strict with yourself and see what you can achieve when you’re not looking at your phone. I am definitely more conscious of what I am allowing myself to be distracted by now.
- Make it fun – Real life is pretty exhausting at the moment, switching up your daily routine and trying to do something new can be a great distraction.
- It’s hard to do every day – Unless your daily lifestyle permits it, this might be something to try every Saturday and Sunday for a month.
- Invest in good socks – never in my life did I know blisters could be 3” long and totally horizontal. And so painful!