Six ways to put the step back into your professional and personal life

25 April 2022

In spring 2020 we were all, somewhat grimly, becoming used to life under lockdown. A key part of this 'experience' was that walking - round the park, round the block, with the dog and/or family of an evening - was one of the few ways to get out of the house.

The fact day-to-day Covid restrictions have lifted means things, thankfully, are now very different. Yet walking, whether as part of a daily commute, at work or outside of work, remains one of the best and easiest ways to improve physical and mental health.

This month (May) is National Walking Month (or 'Walk this May') run by the charity Living Streets. The focus this year is on encouraging people into the habit of even short 20-minute walks every day.

As Living Streets points out, and in advice echoed by the NHS, even just some walking each day reduces the risk of a whole range of preventable health conditions. This includes certain cancers, depression, high blood pressure, musculoskeletal decline, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, among others.

Walking can be a great cardiovascular workout, can make you feel better about life, can get you out in the fresh air (and reduce air pollution if it means ditching the car), and can help to improve thinking, reflection and mindfulness.

If the return to pandemic 'normality' means you've fallen out of the habit of taking regular walks - perhaps you're back in the car commuting or sitting for too long at your office or home office desk - here are six ways to put the step back into your professional and personal life.

1. Set yourself a daily target

We've all had it drummed into us that hitting 10,000 steps a day is important for good health. In truth, the evidence for this over any other number isn't that strong.

Nevertheless, unless you have a disability or a health condition that limits how much you can walk or makes walking painful, it's not a bad target to aim for, and certainly is unlikely to do any harm. The key, however, is simply to set a goal - whatever that is - that feels manageable or realistic. It could be a few thousand, 10,000 or 20,000. What's important is that it is achievable for you.

Think, too, about your day. Are there set times when you could build up your step-count? It might be an idea to work out how long reaching your target is going to take. For example, depending on how fast you're walking and the size of your step, 2,000 steps is a reasonable goal for a 20-minute walk.

So, where can you find just 20 minutes in your day? Find three and suddenly you'll have done a whole hour's walking - in a way that probably feels more manageable than setting out on an hour's hike. You can then build things incrementally.

2. Make your commute more active

In lockdown, 'the commute' was often schlepping downstairs from the bedroom. Physical commuting may now be back but with 'hybrid' working (or split between home and office) also the norm for many, a good way to build more steps into your day is to consider how to make your commute more active.

For physical commuting, could you walk to work? For most of us 40 minutes to an hour is likely to be the upper end of what's realistic. You'll need to think, too, whether you're prepared to do it in a deluge, especially if it only starts raining halfway. If it is a doable option, however, you're rapidly going to improve your health as well as cut travel costs.

If that's unrealistic, getting off a stop or two early and walking the remainder or parking one car park further away can help. You may need to consider things such as appropriate footwear or clothing (which may be different to what you wear at work) and where you can change and store things. Another important factor to consider is whether this is likely to be a viable option on darker winter mornings or evenings.

For home workers, one solution can be to build in a 'fake' commute at the start and end of each day. This has the added advantage of creating a decompression gap between 'home you' and 'work you', so enabling you to switch off or into work mode more easily.

Otherwise, simply build in a walk before, during (perhaps at lunch) or after work. It may be worth, however, actively scheduling this into your diary as 'protected' exercise time to make sure it does actually happen.

3. Walk more at work

As well as the commute, think about how you can make your working day itself more active, especially if you're mostly otherwise sat at a workstation. Even small amounts - taking the stairs instead of the lift, using the further-away coffee machine, not eating lunch at your desk - can all build up over the course of a day.

They're not for everyone (and can take some getting used to) but research has suggested 'walking meetings' can be good not only for physical health but for improving collaboration, productivity and creativity. And, of course, for making meetings shorter.

If that's a step too far (yes, pun intended) how about getting into the habit of walking around when you're on the phone? Or, if you have a degree of influence, encouraging a workplace walking culture? Living Streets, again, has good advice on this, including walking challenges, appointing 'walking champions' and holding walking awards.

4. Use your phone to get off your phone

We all know our phones can be a massive distraction and encourage sedentary lifestyles.

Yet they can also be a useful tool for behaviour change through free walking apps. There are loads but here are some recommended by the British Heart Foundation.

You can download step counters and Pedometers, while wearable trackers (such as Fitbit but there are many others) can be useful. Apps such as Ordnance Survey's 'Secret stories' can help you find alternative routes to keep things interesting.

5. Don't feel you have to do it alone

Walking is something you can do anywhere, anytime and for which you don't necessarily need any special kit, apart from maybe comfortable footwear. You can make daily walking a solitary habit - and this can be a great way to build mindfulness, to commune with the great outdoors, to get your senses buzzing, to think and reflect on things.

However, walking as a social activity or as part of a group can also be fun, and a good way to make sure you stick with it. You could establish a workplace walking group (lunchtime, after hours or both). You could set up a group at home or with friends or join a group such as Ramblers - and its Walking for Health scheme may be useful.

6. Enjoy it

Finally, the key to sustaining good-health habits is for them to be enjoyable. Therefore, try and make sure, when you do get out walking, that it's fun.

It might be because it's somewhere beautiful, because you get to power along to some great music, because you're with friends or colleagues or because you're alone in peace and quiet. Whatever works, make it 'walk' for you.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.