The only person you should compare yourself to is the person that you were yesterday.
If you have a fitness tracker, you’re probably saying, “well, 10,00 steps.” After all, you spend your days stressing about reaching that magic number. You take a lunch walk at work. You park further away at the grocery store. You pace in your room before bed to get those last 100 steps.
The 10,000 steps goal is based on the CDC’s recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. While that’s a great goal to set for the population, it’s like trying to use a hammer to drive in a pin. Yeah, it’ll work, but it’s far from the best tool for the job. It's the "2,000 calorie diet" of lifestyle activity.
The point is this: there is no magic number. It’s a very personal thing, and should be individualized as such. Trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach can be far too hard for some, and far too easy for others. But there is a simple solution, and one that has been overlooked by the technology today.
So simple it seems ridiculous, right? The goal—if you want to get healthier, walk more, to become more active—is to do more than you have been doing. It’s an elegant solution to an inherent goal-setting issue in fitness technology. Being active isn’t an all-or-nothing game. It’s about making small changes and building on those changes. Even a couple hundred steps at a time.
An Easy Fix
The simplest solution is adaptive goal-setting: a goal that is constantly changing, evolving, based on your life. Sustain an injury and can’t move around as much? Those 10,000 steps seem a little unreasonable. Start training for a marathon? You could surpass those same 10,000 steps before lunch.
If you’re serious about improving your levels of physical activity, you can do this all on paper. I will use my own data for demonstration. Below are my step counts for the last week:
That means my 7-day average would be 21,466 steps. In the spirit of “doing more,” I would set my goal for 22,000. The goal should be calculated on a rolling basis, to have a running average of the previous 7 days. To make it even more accurate, you can average two, three, or four weeks. The larger sample size, the better representation of your current activity level. In my example above, Saturday was an outlier for me, since I was on a backpacking trip. But remember, including more data will reduce the impact this will have on your goal. That way, one extra-active day won’t make your goals unattainable for the rest of the week.
Remember, it’s not important how many steps I take. Whether I average 4,000 or 20,000 steps a day, my goal is the same: to do more. To be better. This way, we can custom tailor your goals to the reality of your life.
The best part? This would be an incredibly easy task to incorporate into technology. Fitbit already has it in their Fitbit Dashboard for users. They list your 7-Day average right there. All they would have to do is make adaptive goal-setting an option.
Rather than averaging across the entire week, create your average for each day. That way, you’re most equipped to compare “apples to apples,” rather than considering your rest day a “failure” because you didn’t get as many steps as your long-run day.