250,000 Steps and a new outlook on time management

In an effort to help the planet, my challenge in January was to walk exclusively for all trips less than five kilometres. With the month now over, I’d like to reflect on some of my results.

After tallying the data from my trusty pedometer, I learned that I took almost a quarter million steps in the month. The steps really do add up! Simply by abstaining from vehicles, I walked a total of 185 kilometres over a span of 40 hours. That’s equivalent to 4.4 marathons, or travelling from downtown Vancouver to Everett, Washington.

On average, I walked six kilometres per day (80 minutes), which exceeds the recommended daily quota for a “physically active” lifestyle. Knowing that I can meet my daily quota for physical activity while commuting is a big incentive to walk more. [I deliberately refrained from taking recreational walks all month so that I could more accurately observe the benefits of walking for transportation purposes. Thankfully, January in Vancouver isn’t the most pleasant month for leisurely strolls.]

Results from walking exclusively for all my trips less than five kilometres, January 2013
Results from walking exclusively for all my trips less than five kilometres, January 2013

 

During the month I burned an average of 400 kcalories per day, which is equal to 0.8 lbs of fat per week. It’s helpful to put this in context with other forms of exercise. To burn the same amount of calories, you would need to do 30 minutes of moderate to high intensity cardio exercises like running, or 45 minutes of circuit training or calisthenic exercises, every single day of the month. Though it takes longer to burn the same amount of calories, walking is easier, less stressful on the body, and doesn’t require any special equipment, fitness clothing or costly gym memberships. Also, walking is an easier pill to swallow than more strenuous exercises, like running or going to a spin class. The adage “no pain, no gain” doesn’t really come to mind when heading out for a walk.

From purely a time management perspective, it’s important to remember that walking serves two purposes at once: transportation and exercise. Sure, circuit training will burn 400 kcalories in half the time as walking, but it won’t get you to the grocery store. In addition to the 45 minutes needed to do the exercises, you still need to use time out of your day for all your travel needs. In fact, circuit training may even add to your daily travel requirements if you have to make a separate trip to the gym. On top of that, you’ll likely need to take time to shower and freshen up after your workout. If you factor in the total time out of your day for both transportation and exercise, you may be surprised at how time effective walking can be. Taking a more holistic outlook of time management might be the most important lesson I’ve learned from this month’s challenge. It certainly has made me rethink how I make daily choices about travel and fitness.

Take the Challenge

Want to try this challenge for yourself? Here are some suggestions:

  • Set the parameters – my rule was to walk for all trips under five kilometres. Of course, you can adapt the challenge to reflect your personal abilities. To see exactly how far a five kilometre walk will take you, check out this free online tool that maps a radius around a point.
  • Get the right gear – use a good pair of shoes, comfortable clothing and a rain jacket.
  • Track your progress – use a pedometer to track your steps taken, distance, time and calories. Keeping track of these metrics is a fun and effective way to monitor your progress and track your performance. As the old adage goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
  • Set a target – create a goal for yourself. This will help you to monitor how well you are doing versus a benchmark. For example, the health community recommends 6,000 steps a day to get the health benefits of walking, and 10,000-12,000 steps a day to lose weight. Every 2,000 steps take roughly 20 minutes.
  • Look beyond the numbers – while counting your steps is helpful, don’t forget all the other benefits of walking, like increased energy, improved mood and less stress. Walking also lets you slow down and take in the scenic beauty of the city. As Albert Einstein said, “everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
  • Walk with friends – go out for walks with friends, family or peers. It’s a good way to connect with others, boost your mood, and motivate you to walk more.
  • Walk while you work – consider scheduling some of your work meetings as “walking meetings.” It is a great way to squeeze in a walk during a hectic day at the office. If it worked for Steve Jobs, it can work for you.

Walking: Exercise the mind and body while in transit

Driving is by far the most dominant form of transportation in North American cities. Many cities are zoned to separate residential and commercial areas, making it unrealistic to get around by foot. Even if you wanted to hoof it, the highways that cut across most cities tend to be unsafe and menacing for pedestrians. It’s no wonder a drive-everywhere culture prevails throughout North America. The design of our cities and roads makes it so.

I am fortunate to live in Vancouver. Thanks to a progressive style of urban planning that promotes compact, higher-density and mixed-use development, walking is a practical transportation option in the city. A wide selection of shops, restaurants, schools, parks and other amenities are in close proximity to most residential neighbourhoods. Largely because of the city’s layout and design, approximately half of all trips made in Metro Vancouver are less than five kilometres (an hour or less by foot).

Thanks to its compact design, Vancouver ranks as the most walkable city in Canada. Not only are many trips relatively short in length, but the city’s sidewalks and paths are safe and well-maintained. Considering how easy it is to get around by foot, it is no surprise that Vancouverites walk a lot. According to Translink, in Metro Vancouver 23% of all trips less than five kilometres are taken by foot (a further 2% by bike).

What is surprising is that almost three-quarters of trips fewer than five kilometres are taken by motorized modes, mostly by car. Notwithstanding the city’s pedestrian-friendly design, driving is still the preferred choice of travel even for shorter trips. When it comes to getting people out of their cars, we still have a long way to go. Though municipalities can make certain decisions to entice you to walk more, like zoning for compact development or increasing parking charges, no one can force you to change your travel behaviour. At the end of the day, you have the final say on how you get around.

So, why should you want to walk rather than drive? After all, walking takes longer and can be a nuisance, especially in the rain or when hauling heavy bags or small children. Walking does save you money, but it often isn’t enough to compensate for the lost time or inconvenience.

One reason to consider walking is health. Walking reduces the risk of serious health problems, such as heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. Of course, simply knowing that something is good for you in the long-term does not necessarily make you want to change your behaviour in the short-term. I’m all for preventing diabetes, but it isn’t something I consider before dashing off to the grocery store. The reality is, in the midst of a busy day, the convenience of a car will often triumph over the intangible, long-term health benefits of walking.

To help sell yourself on walking, it can be more fruitful to think in terms of concrete, short-term benefits. What’s in it for you today? As I discussed in my last post, one of the most tangible benefits of walking is it doubles as a mode of transportation and as a way to exercise. So far this month, I’ve walked an average of six kilometres a day (which exceeds the daily requirement for a “physically active” lifestyle) simply by setting a rule to walk for all trips that are under five kilometres. Meeting my daily quota for physical activity while in transit is a very tangible perk.

Walking is good for the mind too. It gives you a chance to slow down and clear your head, not to mention enjoy the beautiful scenery of the city. By stimulating blood circulation and providing oxygen to the brain, walking improves the functioning of your brain and gives you more energy. It reduces stress and boosts your mood, which is especially helpful in tackling the winter doldrums. This month, my energy and mood have been consistently high. I’d like to think all this walking is at least partially responsible.

This month’s challenge has shown me it is clearly possible to make all these shorter trips by foot, particularly in a pedestrian friendly city such as Vancouver. What has stopped me in the past is not a lack of ability, but desire – a concrete reason to change my behaviour. The immediate benefits to the body, mind and wallet provide a powerful incentive to keep walking. Helping the planet is the cherry on top.

How to do a marathon in eight days and other lessons from the sidewalk

In an effort to help the planet, my challenge this month is to walk for all trips I do that are less than five kilometres. This means no cars, cabs or even public transit for trips that take an hour or less by foot. Here are five observations from the first 20 days of the challenge.

A Marathon in Eight Days

For me, a five kilometre run is an achievement. I’ve always found that longer runs are unbearable because of the stress that running puts on my joints. From my perspective, the hope of completing a marathon is as inconceivable as summiting Mount Everest. It’s just not going to happen. So, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that I had walked the equivalent of a marathon in the first eight days of my challenge. While this feat isn’t likely to impress at cocktail parties, it is a fun way to think about all the ground you cover while going about your daily routine. The kilometres really do add up fast. Now just to shave a couple days from my personal best time.

Complete the equivalent of a marathon in 8 days simply by walking for all trips less than five kilometres
Complete the equivalent of a marathon in 8 days simply by walking for all trips less than five kilometres

 

No Gym Membership Required

For most trips, walking takes a lot more time than other modes of travel. The added time it takes to get around is one of the main reasons why people don’t walk more often. However, if you factor in the time out of the day that is needed to exercise, then walking becomes a much more appealing option. One of the perks of walking is it doubles as both a mode of transportation and a way to exercise. It effectively kills two birds with one stone. So far this month I have walked an average of 6.2 kilometres a day, which takes about 80 minutes. This exceeds the requirement for a “physically active” lifestyle – one that includes physical activity equivalent to walking more than five kilometres at a moderate pace. Knowing that I am meeting my daily quota for physical activity while in transit is a big incentive to walk more.

10,000 Step-a-Day Program

If you are trying to lose weight, the health community typically recommends walking 10,000-12,000 steps per day, in addition to maintaining a healthy diet and drinking lots of water. Longer, moderately paced walks are best for losing weight. Be warned, walking 10,000 steps a day is not a trivial matter. I have fallen short of this target despite abstaining from vehicles all month (my average is just over 8,200 steps a day). To reach a daily average of 10,000 steps, I would need to increase my walking range from five kilometres, or else start going for purely recreational walks in addition to my daily travels. In my case, adding an extra 2,000 steps would mean walking about 20 minutes more per day.

The Amish Benchmark

Cars and other modern conveniences have led to a major decline in the amount of walking people do. One way to illustrate how sedentary our society has become in the past 150 years is to look at the Amish, who have refrained from using automobiles and other modern technologies. According to a 2004 study of physical activity amongst an Amish community in southern Ontario, Amish men averaged more than 18,000 steps a day while the women averaged more than 14,000 steps per day. Well above the 10,000 steps needed to lose weight, it’s no wonder only 4% of Amish adults are obese. By comparison, 34% of adults in the United States and 24% in Canada are obese (OECD). The Amish lifestyle may not be realistic for most of us, but it does provide an upper benchmark for physical activity in our day-to-day routine. I’ve hit this benchmark for men only twice this month – it works out to be about three hours of walking in the day.

Easy on the Pocketbook

Walking is a good way to save money, and not just from the obvious savings in fuel, parking, taxis or transit fares. Less expected, all this walking is saving me money because I’ve been more discerning with my travel choices. Due to the time it takes to walk, I am not nearly as impulsive with discretionary trips like dining out or going to the movies. Walking is forcing me to slow down and think more carefully about my travel decisions. If I’m going to invest 45 minutes to walk to the theatre, for example, the film better be Oscar worthy. The net result is I’m taking fewer frivolous excursions, spending less, and taking more pleasure in the trips I do make.