Tuesday, 20 March 2012

10,000 steps? Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy!

Posted by Jean Adams

I admit it. I am a health fascist.

Well, now I’ve read the Wikipedia entry on healthism, I think I am only a part-time health fascist. I’m strongly in favour of living a healthy lifestyle and of the government going out of its way to make this easier for everyone to achieve. I don’t necessarily think that “the problem of health and disease [is situated] at the level of the individual." In fact, I read a great article this week taking an evolutionary approach to socio-economic inequalities in health behaviours. The phrase that most sticks in my mind is: “if you want to change an organism’s behaviour, you need to change its environment”.

But, anyway. I’m all for the healthy lifestyle. As a public health insider, I try to set a good example without the need for environmental or motivational interventions. I don't buy any of that "these targets are unobtainable" stuff. I eat my five-a-day. I do my 5x30 minutes of physical activity per week. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t have multiple partners (well, not in bed). OK, I admit it, I do drive marginally (a lot) faster than the speed limit on occasion (every day).

Surely I do enough running to make the grade? (photo: Martin White)
If totally motivated, no kids, decent salary, partner who definitely does almost 50% of the housework, me can’t meet the guidance, who can? 

So, it was with rather gay abandon that I took on a step-challenge competition with some colleagues. The idea is that we should be taking 10,000 steps per day. This is, apparently, equivalent to walking about 5 miles. At a brisk pace of 20 minutes per mile, that would be an hour and 40 minutes per day. So, quite a lot more than your 30 minutes, five times a week. Unfortunately, I didn’t stop to work all of this out until after agreeing to the challenge. 

The bottom line is that I thought it would be easy-peasy. My colleague reports he manages his 10,000 steps easily. Obviously super-healthy me is going to totally Whup. His. Ass. 

As health researchers, we know all about the problems of measurement error and the importance of comparing like with like. The competition will, therefore, involve standard issue pedometers – a step counting gadget that my colleague has taken the trouble to validate against more expensive gadgets. 

Yesterday was my first day on the pedometer. I had a fairly normal day that included a short bike commute and a six mile run. I only managed 9089 steps. 

Now come on! That’s not fair. How can a six mile run not be enough? This gadget is obviously useless. Everyone knows that a running step is longer than a walking step. And think of all the extra energy involved in running versus walking. My steps are clearly worth a lot more than other people’s steps. 

So you can take your 10,000 step challenge back. Your targets are totally unrealistic and unobtainable. I’m not playing anymore.


  1. 10,000 steps is clearly hard to achieve, even by a fit, active person. So, the target needs verifying as meaningful first (in terms of health benefit). Setting targets can be motivating; but failing to achieve them demotivating. So, next we need research on the psychology of such targets. This may all have been done - someone needs to review the research literature. Let me know when you have a definitive answer. In the meantime, I'll be thinking of other targets to use in our obesity work...

  2. I wonder whether you think your healthier-than-average lifestyle affects your research? Do you think it makes it harder for unhealthy people to fess up about the influences on their lifestyles if they feel that the researcher interviewing them is very healthy? Or is that no more valid a suggestion than thinking those with diseases are less likely to talk openly to well people?

    I suspect that public health research jobs naturally attract people with healthy lifestyles. Is that healthy? Would it be useful for research institutes to employ people with different levels of healthiness in their lives? Would the odd stereotypical slobbish computer geek working in a research department provide different analytical insights?

    I think these are interesting questions.

    It strikes me that this would be a big issue in the arts and the social sciences. It's hard to imagine a wholly white sociological research group looking into black gang culture, for example, or an in-depth review of a director's filmography being conducted entirely by a team of watercolour artists (unless looking for a particular set of insights). Perhaps it's less of an issue in scientific study. Or perhaps my premise about the healthiness of public health researchers is wrong.

    As for the 10,000 steps: I exceed that most days, but wouldn't dream of a six-mile run!

    1. Yeah I think that is an important point and I often wonder how much my general attitude to life (not just how much running I do) influences what research I find interesting and important.

      I only ever do numerical data analysis research, so this isn't a thing that would influence how people respond to me in interviews - because there are never any interviews for me. But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter in other ways. Funnily enough, my qualitative colleagues would always include reflections on their position and how this might influence their results in their reports. But with numerical data, that is never required.

      I guess it probably indicates how much quantitative and qualitative traditions have to learn from each other.

      Today's current total is 11,166.