Here's What Happened When I Walked 20,000 Steps Every Day For 2 Weeks
Like Ken's job in the recent Barbie movie was simply to "beach," my job for the last couple of weeks has been "walk." Inspired by all the research on the health benefits of walking, I strolled at least 20,000 steps every day for two weeks to see what it would do to my mood and overall well-being.
Here are my top takeaways from all those extra miles—the great, the good, and the admittedly tedious.
Why 20,000 steps?
I've always liked walking a lot. Like so many others, I find it to be a meditative practice that helps me work through my thoughts. (Not to mention, it's a great time to listen to music and podcasts.)
Before this experiment, I'd already been walking 10,000 on most days. Hitting this threshold was pretty easy to do: I'd usually reach it just by walking to a distant cafe for coffee, walking to digest my dinner, and going on occasional hikes.
But I started to wonder what would happen if I walked significantly more. How long would it take? How would it feel? If regular walking is associated with reduced heart disease risk, lower blood pressure, and a decreased mortality rate—what could super-walking do?
"[I] want walking to be viewed as a necessary biological process, like sleeping, drinking water, or eating food," Starrett says. "That's how important walking is to the system."
Starrett notes that walking 8,000 steps a day is an attainable goal for most people—but there's no reason to stop there if you want to do more. The more the merrier as long as you gradually increase your steps over time to ensure your body can handle the extra activity, he says.
"There's some real magic that happens when you walk past 90 minutes," Starrett explains. With this in mind, I settled on my challenge of walking 20,000 steps a day for two weeks.
How long is this in miles?
What I learned in the process
I honestly wasn't sure what to expect when I decided to walk 20,000 steps a day. Sure, I already loved walking, but I wasn't used to covering so much ground at any given time. Here were my top takeaways from the exercise:
You don't really walk 20,000 steps by accident
As a remote freelance journalist, I'm used to carving out time for walking breaks during the day, and I usually walk to run errands and meet up with friends (as long as the requisite sensible shoes don't ruin my outfit). But even with all this walking, I didn't get much more than 10,000 steps a day.
To reach 20,000 steps, I needed to plan out several long walks daily, usually banging out at least half of the steps first thing in the morning then walking the other half after work in the evening, possibly with an afternoon walk sprinkled in.
Walking this much is incredibly time-consuming
This challenge showed me that one's job and location play a big role in how much walking they can do.
It took me about four hours to walk all 20,000 steps each day. Granted, I walked at a pretty leisurely pace to allow my mind to wander, stop and take photos of August flowers, grab coffee, and stroll through museums. On the weekends, I spent entire days strolling with my boyfriend, exploring lakeside parks and the county fair. Walking became my lifestyle and chief hobby—and I'm lucky to live in a place that allowed me to do so much of it.
Yes, walking leads to weight loss (both directly and indirectly)
Walking isn't exactly running or HIIT, and I was curious if it would impact my weight or muscle definition. I don't own a scale, so I'm not sure how much weight I lost during the two weeks, but my clothes certainly fit looser and my body (especially my calves and thighs) became visibly more toned. More importantly, I felt fit and had more energy throughout the day.
Whenever I needed a boost of energy, I'd walk. By spending so much of my free time walking, there were fewer opportunities to mindlessly snack when I was bored at home. The steps also gave me a sense of healthy accomplishment, so I felt more inclined to ride that momentum and whip up healthy, satisfying meals rather than opt for less nutritious snacks.
The experience validated something Starrett had told me: "Walking is the easiest and sneakiest way to burn a ton of calories."
Walking is an ideal time for thinking
A lot of ink has been spilled by and about famous writers who loved to stroll in their free time. I now better understand this universal truth: Walking helps us think. As someone who struggles with anxiety and racing thoughts, my long walks were soothing backgrounds for contemplation. I listened to music when I wanted to brainstorm and podcasts when I wanted to quiet my own thoughts and hear from others.
By giving myself the time and space to think during a walk, my mind felt less noisy throughout the rest of the day, and I found myself in reliably better spirits overall. The endorphins from walking probably didn't hurt, either.
I…really liked it
On Day 7, I walked all 20,000 steps in one fell swoop in the morning so I could spend the rest of the day as I pleased, with no obligation to walk. Then 6:30 p.m. rolled around, and I felt a bizarre desire to…walk. I labeled my Strava activity "Stockholm syndrome" because I was so surprised that I wanted to walk an additional 4,000 steps just to stretch my legs and get some air.
There were, of course, a few days during which 20,000 steps felt inconvenient and tedious, and I'd have rather slept in or spent my evening on the couch. But for the most part, I felt excited and privileged to spend so much time walking.
Tips for walking 20,000 steps
- Invest in good shoes: Walking has a very low barrier to entry as far as exercise methods go. However, when you're walking long distances, it's important to wear a supportive pair of shoes that will keep your feet from becoming sore and blistered. I switched between a pair of Keen Uneek hiking sandals and running sneakers most days, miraculously ending the challenge with only one small blister and a pretty minor amount of foot pain for someone who had just trekked 140 miles in two weeks.
- Make a bathroom plan: It helped me to keep a mental map of the various bathrooms I could utilize along my route since at different points, I could be as far as 5 miles from home. I used bathrooms in parks, museums, and cafes, along with one unfortunate but necessary visit to a porta-potty.
- Build up to it: As is the case with all exercise methods, you should build up your strength gradually to avoid injury while walking. Plus, if one day of walking 20,000 steps leaves you feeling sore and miserable, you aren't likely to want to do it again and form a habit. Start by choosing an attainable walking goal within your fitness level and increase your step count over time.
- Enjoy the time out in your community: I know I'm not the only person who got a little too used to staying home during the pandemic. Sometimes, I find it hard to motivate myself to, in internet slang, "touch grass." But for me, the best part of walking 20,000 steps a day has been going out into the world more. I've stumbled upon outdoor jazz performances, said hi to countless adorable passing dogs, smelled flowers, dipped my toes in the lake, and enjoyed my surroundings much more than I would have if I stayed home gazing at my screens.
It's certainly not necessary to walk 20,000 steps a day—but after doing it for the last two weeks, I find myself feeling calmer, fitter, and more excited to get outside and explore the world around me. If you want to take on a similar challenge, be sure to build up your miles gradually, make a bathroom plan, and invest in a good pair of walking shoes.