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Reaching daily Fitbit nirvanna

Sarasota residents reflect on their Fitbit challenges and if 10,000 steps is all it's cracked up to be.

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  • | 8:20 a.m. February 21, 2019
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In 10,000 steps a person could travel from Lido Key Beach to the heart of Main Street, trek around Myakka State Park’s Bee Island campsite or traipse from Longboat Key to Bradenton Beach.

With fitness technology such as Fitbits and Apple Watches in stores across the U.S., most Americans are familiar with the products’ central tenet — 10,000 steps a day.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate workouts for adults, some residents in Sarasota and Manatee counties say focusing solely on a 10,000-step daily goal is not the best way to see substantial health benefits.

So where did the 10,000-step goal come from? Are there tricks to reaching 10,000 steps daily? What other steps can be taken to maximize a healthy lifestyle?

Sarah Zalud is a health professional at HealthFit.
Sarah Zalud is a health professional at HealthFit.

10,000 steps: The myth?

Sarah Zalud, fitness supervisor at Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s HealthFit, said the 10,000-step goal is a myth

originally created by a marketing campaign.

It began in 1965 when a Japanese company, Yamasa Toke, launched a pedometer, which was marketed to walking club participants with the slogan, “Let’s walk 10,000 steps a day!”

While Zalud said it is important to complete some form of exercise daily, a 10,000-step goal is not realistic for everyone.

“I definitely think it’s a helpful tool, as anything is that you can see that you’re only at 1,000 or 2,000 steps, but you almost want to more think of it as vigorous exercises or some purposeful type of exercise,” she said.

No matter a person’s exercise level, Zalud said moving away from a sedentary lifestyle is important because people can lose strength within three to five days and cardiovascular health in less than a week.

Walking to the moon

Sarah Zalud works on coaching techniques with colleague Kayla Frimmel.
Sarah Zalud works on coaching techniques with colleague Kayla Frimmel.

It was with this knowledge that the clinical research center at Sarasota Memorial Hospital started looking for a health incentive for its employees. With the help of Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation, 1,000 SMH employees were given Fitbits in December 2016.

“At the hospital we have people who are medically trained. They’re knowledgeable, they’re intelligent, but they’re sedentary and overweight,” said Dr. Kirk Voelker, medical director of clinical research. “So we wanted to find a way to change that.”

In the following year, the staff competed in cross-department challenges with the goal of accumulating more steps than the other. In 365 days, together the employees took enough steps to circle Earth 14.7 times or walk to the moon and halfway back, which Voelker said made the project a success.

“This is just a way to give back to our employees, to let them know we are concerned about them and we want them to participate,” he said.

However, there were some issues with the project the hospital is working to improve. The department challenges were exclusive to Fitbit wearers, Voelker said, and individuals couldn’t create their own challenges.

So, the hospital is developing an app that allows most activity-tracker owners to participate. Additionally, it will allow users to set their own goals based on their ability and give points based on meeting their individually set goals rather than having everyone strive for 10,000 steps.

Voelker said he hopes the app will debut for employees within the next couple months. Once it has been tested and proven to work, he hopes to open the app up for residents to compete, too.

A change in lifestyle

Some residents are already putting the 10,000-step onus on themselves.

It was upon this realization in September 2018 that Sarasota resident Chris Lexow decided it was time for a change.

“I was pretty overweight. I was almost 250 pounds,” Lexow said. “I was just feeling pretty sick, and I decided I looked bad, I felt bad, so I was going to do something about it.”

Chris Lexow has lost around 50 pounds since September 2018.
Chris Lexow has lost around 50 pounds since September 2018.

Now, just four months later, Lexow is down nearly 50 pounds thanks to his Fitbit and a ketogenic diet — a diet that is low-carbohydrate, medium-protein and high-fat.

While on the diet, Lexow was sure to track his calories on the Fitbit app, something he says helped him stay on track.

“[Otherwise,] you’d have to use a calculator to figure out your macros every day, you’d have to have a notebook to keep it all down. I guess for a nutritionist it would be feasible, but for most people it wouldn’t,” he said.

While he does strive to exercise frequently, Lexow doesn’t focus on it as fiendishly as he used to. Now, he relies on the exercise he gets at work to help him reach his goals.

Lexow works in production at Calusa Brewing, often covering five to seven miles and lifting hundreds of pounds daily.

“It’s been pretty eye-opening with the Fitbit because it’s showing me how much I’m moving throughout the day and that I do a very physically demanding job,” he said.

On his restricted diet, Lexow takes in around 1,700 calories a day and burns over twice that, averaging 4,000 calories. This is largely due to his average step goal — 14,000.

Sarah Zalud perfects Kayla Frimmel's squat.
Sarah Zalud perfects Kayla Frimmel's squat.

Is the magic 10,000 so magical? 

While having a daily goal is good, focusing too hawkishly on it may actually lead to negative health effects.

Zalud said that while 10,000 steps is a good base goal, it is usually not specific enough for individuals and should not be a person’s only source of exercise.

Rather than focusing on 10,000 steps immediately after getting a Fitbit or Apple Watch, Zalud said people should collect data for a week to see how many steps they normally take.

From there, she said users should set a large goal and then create smaller, more attainable goals that will help them meet their larger one.

However, she said users should be careful not to get fixated on their step goal.

“If people think of it more in terms of health longevity, then it’s more of an enjoyable thing to do,” she said.

Chris Lexow demonstrates how to track calories and macronutrients in the Fitbit app.
Chris Lexow demonstrates how to track calories and macronutrients in the Fitbit app.

Success from persistence

Lexow agreed, saying the keto diet is hard to stick to at first because of cravings and the sugars found in a variety of foods, especially in foods people wouldn’t expect, such as grocery store chicken and canned soup.

“Of course I miss food — doughnuts, sandwiches, pizza and all the good stuff in life, fried food, everything,” Lexow said. “But over time, because of how the diet works, the cravings disappear, and I feel so much better now.”

After doing research, Lexow is more easily able to identify which foods contain harmful ingredients and avoid them. Plus, he said the bar code scanning feature on the Fitbit app easily allows him to check a food for harmful ingredients before buying.

“At first it’s a drag. It’s really complex to wrap your head around, but the Fitbit, the calorie tracking, really simplifies that over time,” Lexow said. “It really forces you to think about everything you put in your body because [the Fitbit] shows you if you’re doing the diet properly.”

How to reach 10,000 on a budget 

For those looking to keep track of their daily goals without spending hundreds of dollars, there are alternatives.

Zalud suggests buying a $3 to $5 pedometer that attaches to the hip for monitoring steps, or simply making sure to get 30 minutes of exercise each day.

“You can just say, ‘Did I have 30 minutes of purposeful exercise where I was short of breath?’ That doesn’t necessarily need to be gasping for air, but it does mean it was hard to talk,” she said. “If you went on a walk with a friend for 30 minutes and were able to talk the whole time, it probably wasn’t an intense enough exercise.”

While Zalud is an advocate of seeking outside help to create a plan and maintain accountability, for those who may not have the means, gaining an understanding of what you want to achieve is key.

“If you don’t do the research behind it, then those changes are less likely to stick,” she said. 


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