How walking 10,000 steps a day changed how I set goals

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I have never been the type of person who enjoys exercise. Phew, it feels good to get that off my chest. No matter how hard I try to keep an exercise routine, I always find that something (injuries, weather, appointments or fatigue) interrupts my fitness goals, or that I simply lose interest after about two or three weeks.

I’ve tried running, Pilates, ocean swimming, weights, HIIT, rock climbing, and just going to the gym and trying to workout on random machines—you name it! Despite my best efforts, nothing has ever really stuck. That is, until I found a great workout strategy to integrate into my daily routine. Do you want to know what it was?

Drum roll please. . . walking! Specifically, walking 10,000 steps each day. I know, I know, walking barely counts as exercise, right? We can debate how big the health benefits are later . . .

Eight weeks ago, I started consistently walking 10,000 steps every day and I’m still going strong. Yes, I’m shocked too. For those of you with active jobs—hospital wardsmen, personal trainers, teachers and tradesmen—10,000 steps probably doesn’t sound like that much physical activity. But as someone who works an 8 to 5 office job every day (and used to have average daily step totals of 2000 to 3000 according to my activity tracker), I’m pretty proud of myself.

Apart from one day when I was sick and my own wedding day, I have reached my 10,000-step goal (and even on those “skipped” days I got an above-average step count).

So what’s made it stick?

By happy accident, I seem to have uncovered the secret to achieving any goal—not only when it comes to an exercise session, but in all areas of life.

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Enjoy the process

No bells and whistles, no fancy calendars or apps, no motivational talks or online courses. The secret to getting sustainable, long-term results in anything is simply to enjoy what you do. Of course, the fact that we don’t enjoy everything that we want to do is where we run into problems. But there are a few ways you can hack it. Here’s what I’ve learned, broken down into steps:

Step 1: Find an initial motivator that forces you to form a habit

Eight weeks ago, I received an email from work encouraging employees to register for a six-week step-counting based team challenge creatively named the “10,000 Steps Challenge” (an annual initiative they run motivating us to take 10,000 daily steps to combat the sedentary nature of office work). Desperate to find some motivation to stick with a fitness routine, I enthusiastically signed up and was put in a team with four other people. The goal was to accumulate the largest number of steps for the six-week period by working as a team.

I’d found my motivator.

Within the first week, I’d accumulated more than 100,000 steps and my team was placed second on the leaderboard. This excited me, so I just kept walking. And walking, and walking. Every day, without fail, I was finding simple ways to squeeze steps into every crack in my schedule: waking up before the sunrise to go on a 30-minute walk, walking during my lunch break at work and even marching on the spot in front of my office’s standing desk. I was determined, and the healthy competition forced me to achieve higher numbers, and eventually led me to form a habit.

Practical tip: Accountability and competition are great initial motivators in your journey to forming healthy habits. Find a friend or workout buddy who can hold you accountable, join a local competition or download an accountability or fitness app to help motivate you.

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Step 2: Pair your routine with something you enjoy

A few days into the challenge, I began to suspect that my motivation would soon wane if I didn’t make the process more interesting. I needed fun ways to keep engaged if I wanted to stick with my routine for the long run. To address this, I challenged myself to walk a different path every day. I then began taking photos and filming some of the process. And when that started to get tedious, I began to pinch plant cuttings from the footpath to grow at home.

I also listened to lots of new podcasts, discovered new tracks and albums on Spotify, prayed a bunch, watched YouTube videos occasionally and smiled at strangers. I sometimes even stopped at the park to try out the swings or meditate on Bible verses. As an added bonus to all this, I got to know my way around my new neighbourhood very well.

By coupling my walking with activities I enjoyed, I came to crave my daily walks. They became a space where I could learn, create and meditate by talking to God. Throughout this process, a secret I learned to staying motivated is this: don’t force yourself to do something if it feels like a waste of time.

Practical tip: make your walking time productive and enjoyable. Find walking-friendly activities you enjoy. Once you find it, make a note of it in your calendar or journal—plan it out—to keep yourself excited.

Step 3: Don’t track results, track consistency

The quickest way to lose motivation is to see that you are going backwards. For anyone who’s tried dieting, weight-lifting or other forms of measured exercise, you will know that starving yourself and working hard only to put on a kilogram is the lamest thing in the history of all things. It also becomes the best excuse to quit, ever.

But we don’t want to quit! We want to stay motivated—so how do we do that? The secret: instead of tracking results or progress, track consistency. Rather than asking yourself, Did I lose a kilo today?, ask yourself Did I show up today? And rather than tracking how fast your kilometres are, track how many days you ran consistently and reward yourself for that instead.

In BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits, he says that the trick to create long-term change in your life is to break everything down into the tiniest of habits—habits that can be executed consistently (i.e. every day). Instead of focusing on the seemingly insurmountable marathon you’re training for, breaking the activity down into the smallest possible component is much more sustainable. Making your goal to “Run 100 metres” or “Put on running shoes” is something you can tick off your list every day. As the theory goes, once you run 100 metres, you’re more likely to run a few kilometres simply because you’ve already started.

When I was walking, 10,000 steps was a realistic goal. I wasn’t aiming to run 10 kilometres each day. Walking 10,000 steps is something nearly anyone can do. It’s the consistency that was the real challenge for me.

Practical tip: break down your big goals into smaller steps that you can tick off your to-do list every single day. Don’t worry about what the scales or the stopwatch says; only worry about showing up. Your body will do the rest.

So I guess the question is, did my team win the 10,000 step challenge? Drum roll No . . . but we finished in second place! (The winning team happened to be made up of marathon runners, so they did have a bit of an advantage). The fact that we all received a second-place prize was awesome, but the real prize was being able to look back on my calendar and feel a sense of pride in my achievements. I’d showed up for myself; I’d done something I never thought I’d be able to do so consistently.

That feeling of pride and accomplishment is simply addictive. And now that I’ve felt it, all I want to do is keep walking! It’s created this interesting snowball effect and I’m absolutely stoked!

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Maryellen Hacko is a writer, graphic designer and artist. She runs a Youtube channel and paints in her spare time.

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