In case you didn’t know, my birthday is March 4th. As in, March Forth! Because even my birthdate seems to say, “Get moving.”
I love celebrations in general, and while writing Movement Matters I realized that throughout human history the axis of celebration has primarily been movement, e.g. group dancing, plant gathering and bonfires, big game hunts, and walking or running long distances. That’s when I began the work to celebrate personal events and milestones dynamically.
For years I’ve asked for a day walking by myself or with my family as a gift for special days like my birthday and Mother’s Day, and for the last four years I’ve celebrated my birthday with long-distance walking—I’ve walked my years in miles. This year I wanted to mix things up, and instead of doing one day-long bout of walking, I decided to walk ten miles a day for the 44 days leading up to my 44th birthday.
Walking is perhaps the oldest and most ubiquitous form of human movement; it’s also a simple, practical, and inexpensive form of exercise. But we’ve stopped doing it as a group of humans. Why? And, is it possible to restore the practice of walking?
Just as reading a guide to the wilderness teaches you less about nature than getting into it regularly, I learn more about movement from actually moving than from studying movement academically. For decades I’ve been interested in how movement works, and in the last few years I’ve realized that to understand the phenomena of movement I must equally study sedentarism—that is, what it is about humans and our societies that might prevent us from moving or keep us choosing a less active way of being in the world. With this longer birthday experiment, I wanted to find out what made fitting walks into my day hard, with the idea that others may share some of my barriers to walking and benefit from my solutions.
I want to understand the complexity of being able to fit this baseline movement into a life/society/culture that doesn't support walking beyond exercise or see walking as an essential part of human activities. I suspected that in order to fit more walking into my life, I’d have to give it purpose beyond walking, e.g., as transportation to places I needed to get to anyway. (Spoiler alert: I was right.)
I already walked about five miles each day, so I didn't think a five-mile daily challenge could teach me as much. Ten miles a day, on the other hand, sounded hard. Not the walking part—after years of working on the mobility, strength, and alignment of my feet, knees, hips, and back, as well as slowly increasing my mileage regularly, a ten-mile walk poses no big physical challenge. While I knew ten miles a day for so many days in a row could definitely take its toll, I also knew I could walk a bout of ten miles comfortably.
What sounded harder than the physicality of the walk was fitting ten miles of walking into my daily work and family life. I’ve been doing quarterly 20-mile walks for a couple years, but it’s easier to clear a half-day for walking than it is to fit multiple hours of walking into each day, for 44 days in a row. At minimum, walking ten miles requires three hours a day. Who has three hours to walk every day? I surely don’t. (Spoiler alert: I do).
Most importantly, walking 440 miles for my 44th birthday sounds cooler than walking 352 or 396 miles for my 44th birthday. So, you know, it was a science.
My experiment design wasn’t because I think ten miles of walking a day is part of some ultimate movement diet; it’s just the distance required for me to gather the data I wanted. What I experienced during my daily ten can be equivalent to what another might experience trying to fit in a one-, two-, four-, or twenty-mile walk each day.
I didn’t use a movement tracker, because I wasn’t trying to get ten miles’ worth of stepping movements or pedometer jolts per day; I wanted to see how fitting ten miles’ worth of "being out on a walk" into each day could work. “Walking” is continuous, which makes it geometrically and physiologically different than individually measured steps. Instead of using an activity tracker, I went (sort of) old school and used an online map to figure out the mileage of the routes I’d be walking. So I likely accumulated steps/movements that would register more like 13-14 miles a day, but I wasn’t measuring “activity.”
I could also often be found carrying around an actual paper map, because a) navigating by map with my dad when I was a kid was magical, b) my phone is so old that it dies in any conditions that are not kangarooing it in my shirt like a preemie, and c) my sense of direction is so slow I often have to stand on a map to orient myself, and my phone is too small to stand on.
If shoes weren’t broken down into “looks good” and “good for exercise,” walking more throughout the day might be more feasible. I have and love many minimal footwear styles for many occasions. When it comes to walking a large volume of miles in the freezing, wet, and rainy season of the Pacific Northwest, my preferred shoes are water resistant without adding any bulk or rubbing.
I logged almost all my birthday miles in two pairs of Vivobarefoot minimal footwear: one athletic and one a dressier boot. The “almost” is because I had to walk on or in snow a couple of times, in which case I wore more snow-savvy boots. I wore the smaller, sleeker athletic pair for most of the miles, but because I was walking so much, and needing to fit walking time into non-exercise time, I found I needed to be able to walk while not in workout clothes. For example, while traveling for business, I needed shoes I could wear walking from my hotel right into a corporate meeting. My boots were stylish footwear I could also walk ten miles in—a shoe category we need more of!
Wearing the “right shoes” is totally a thing. The more I walked, the sorer my feet and ankles were by the end of the day, and the shoes I wore made a difference. My sweet boots got the job done but definitely left me with stiffer ankles compared to my tennies. Even two pairs of fully minimal shoes made by the same company can have very different effects on my body! So, just know that if your body hurts when you’re walking, it’s very possible that your pain has to do with what you’re wearing as you walk. But don’t take my word for it; you can also read my books Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief and Whole Body Barefoot to learn more about how shoes affect your feet and all the other parts of your body.
Wait. What just happened?
As predicted, walking ten miles a day started to take its toll. I don’t think this was related to how much walking I was doing as much as how imbalanced my movement diet had become. In order to fit in the walking, I had to spend less time doing other things, and one of those things was the set of whole-body stretches I usually do every day. While I was swapping movement for movement, it was like swapping a salad for a handful of almonds. After a month of only eating almonds, I could feel my need for a salad. (Are you hungry now? Me too.)
In order to fit ten miles in each day I also had to convert a bit of my sitting work time to walking work time. Which was great, except it also meant less stretching time—long ago I increased my stretching time by fitting it in at my desk.
My feet and ankles were letting me know I had to get creative, so I totally gave up standing to work (when I remembered) and made sure to use a floor-sitting desk instead, to make sure I wasn’t missing any stretching opportunities.
I also had to put my five favorite exercises—Calf Stretch, Soleus Stretch, Strap Stretch, Thoracic Stretch, and a must-do daily set of Spinal Twists—back into my day, but into a different place than before. I wound up doing them just before bed, while also catching a few pages of whatever book I was reading. I also did them for a shorter time than before, but at least I got some of those micronutrients of movement alongside the larger macronutrient of walking, and this is what kept my body feeling good and the larger volume of walking possible. Said another way, one way to deal with the almonds vs. salad scenario is to just add almonds your salad.
Choosing to do my work while sitting on the floor so that my legs are stretched at the same time and making sure my walks have a greater-than-walking purpose are examples of what I call “stacking your life” or “movement permaculture.”
From Movement Matters:
“Like multitasking, stacking your life uses the same period of time to fulfill different functions [read an example of my stacking here]. There are big differences between the two concepts, however, and they’re not semantic; stacking your life and multitasking differ in how you approach meeting your various needs. Multitasking involves trying to accomplish many discrete tasks at once. Stacking your life involves the search for fewer tasks that meet multiple needs, which often requires that you’re clear on what your needs actually are. Once you identify your needs and which tasks best serve you, you can attend to, pay attention to, get involved in, and focus upon a single task at hand that serves multiple obligations.”
To make ten miles a day work, I knew I had to stack as many of my 440 miles as possible. To fit more walking in, walking had to simultaneously be a conduit to meeting other needs, or I’d never be able to make time for it.
I met many needs while I was walking. I:
- Commuted to and from work
- Got my groceries (bonus: carrying)
- Took mail to and picked up mail from the post office
- Ran errands
- Got my kids to school
- Got my kids home from school
- Facilitated my dog’s need for movement
- Held work calls
- Had luxurious, no-pressure catch-up calls with my grandma, sister, brothers, aunt
- Spent time with friends
- Went on a date
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Move more tip: Can you make a "date night" into a #datehike? No, it doesn't have to be all hiking (or even at night!), maybe just ditch the car, if only in part. Last night we walked 8 miles to and from our anniversary dinner, and being outside and moving together gives us time to blow off any steam, get to the deeper issues that have a harder time coming up (for us) when sitting down, or provides more conversation time. Also I find that we both just feel better in all the ways, having stacked our personal movement needs with our needs for connection/partner support. 60 miles down; and so begins another day. Little known fact: THE MODERN GIFT FOR A YEAR 9 ANNIVERSARY IS AN INSTAGRAM POST ABOUT WALKING. You're welcome, MC (and also my favorite). #moveyourdna #movementmatters #stackyourlife
In 44 days I never once went on a 10-mile walk; I got my miles in before and after work, in between moving my kids from point A to point B. Many days went like this: wake up early to walk three miles before anyone else was up, get another three to four miles broken up in the middle of the day while running errands, and walk a few more after 4:30 or 5:00 pm, often with the fam.
My quick takeaways about how I got the miles in, that might help you figure out how you can get more mileage in:
- Early mornings for the win
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A favorite quote from my editor is “Going to bed early is sleeping in on the other side.” #genius 3 miles, 6:00-7:00am (this is how light it is at 7am), with friend and dogs. The simplest time for me to add a bit of walking to each day is first thing in the morning, while everyone in the house and work and on my phone are sleeping. It’s like magical bonus time just sitting there. Things that make it better: others, dogs, headlamps, hot beverage. Also, downtown areas are often well lit, with many people up and driving around to get to work and set up their day’s work. Got an early morning strategy? Share it! #marchforth #walkingwell #walkingtip #moveyourdna
- Taking your meals, or even part of them, on the go can open up breakfast, lunch, and dinner times as space for walking
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EARLY MORNING MOVEMENT TIP: This morning we had one morning hour to take a walk together OR make and eat breakfast. SO I DID BOTH by putting breakfast in a bowl and carrying it on a trek to get our new dog (THAT'S RIGHT, OUR NEW DOG) used to the lumps and bumps and pokies and slipperiness of the movement she'll need to be strong enough for. P.S. I didn't really have much time to make breakfast either if I wanted to walk but fortunately I make a little extra dinner to be heated up for either breakfast or to go into lunches because cooking three meals a day is exhausting. And, you'd be surprised, what normally gets a groan as "really? Chicken soup for breakfast?" is happily gobbled up when the warm, delicious food is secondary to the adventures at hand (as well as the only thing available). Meaning, if breakfast isn't the FEATURE of the morning, it really doesn't matter what it is when contrasted with exploration, relaxed time outside with your peeps, etc. #moveyourdna #letthemmovetheirDNA P.P.S. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Going to bed early is sleeping in on the other side.
When they get the movement they need, we call our bodies fit. But this physiological state equally relates to the time and space for movement in our day—literally how well we can fit movement into the calendar of our lives. If we started using “fit” not to describe the state of a body, but the state of our time, then it would be easier to see that our bodies are merely responding to the calendars we keep as individuals and as a larger group. There's a plague of filling our days with so much that we don’t need, no space remains for what we do need. To be fit requires us to make timespace for movement and then move within it. We cannot move without the space to do so.
In the past I’ve experienced not being able to move my body due to pain, injury, fatigue, and malaise. The gift of this experiment was the chance to feel the inability to walk because there was no more time in which to fit it. Each of these scenarios can make walking difficult, and all come with real feelings and adjustments that are necessary to keep going. Not walking because you physically cannot and not walking because there is no timespace are separate variables, but they can also be related. The less timespace you have had for moving, the less adapted you are to movement, which means the less movement you can tolerate, so the less you move, and the more your time begins to hold non-movement things, so the less you move…and thus a downward spiral is created.
Walking ten miles a day, as I anticipated, wasn’t physically hard for me because of the volume of movement I’ve become accustomed to. Yes, I was tired and a little sore at the end of each day, but this was my body becoming stronger in response to this load. Exercise Physiology 101: Walk ten miles a day and walking ten miles a day gets easier.
Walking ten miles a day, also I as I anticipated, was hard because it was hard to fit in. My body parts, wanting to walk ten miles a day, are under my control, but my life involves many parts that aren’t mine—many parts with no interest in moving. I found it easier to move my body parts than my life-parts around to accommodate walking. But guess what? Moving my life-parts in order to move my arm and leg parts made me better at moving my life-parts. Someday this will also be covered in Exercise Science: Move life-parts to walk ten miles a day and moving life-parts to walk ten miles a day gets easier.
Also, the construct of “exercise” has biased us towards time. We’re looking for a volume of timespace we’ve been told “counts” and we don’t know how to move when we can’t find that volume. For novice time-movers, here’s what I’ve learned: Look for the minutes. There were so many times I’d arrive at an appointment or at school to grab a kid and found myself sitting for 15 minutes because it was “too short” to walk. Why? It’s not. Take a five-minute walk every chance you can; it’s way more likely you have five “extra” minutes five to six times a day than you have thirty extra minutes all at once. It’s entropy. All those extra minutes are going to be spread around into tiny places where they don’t even register as "your time", let alone "time being frittered away". Take the five-minute walk. Just take it. Those minutes count.
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To sit inside on the ferry at 4:45 am (so much cozier) or to take a breezy 20-minute stroll in the moonlight-dawn combo? For us it's the latter. While harder to initiate, is offers a bit more balance (outside, nature, movement) to the 2-hours of driving and 6 1/2 hour flight up ahead. Hours are also just compiled minutes. Look for the minutes. #gooutside #moveyourdna #letthemmovetheirdna #getitwhereyoucan
Community matters to a ridiculous degree—to this walking experiment and to humans moving more. For starters, I couldn’t have completed this mileage if I didn’t have a partner who shared responsibility in all aspects of our lives and friends who adjusted their lifetime to include walking so we could do stuff together while on the move. The parts involved in walking, then, aren’t only our ankles and hips; other people walking is also a part of our walking. Humans need other people. So, in the same way a body that’s fit needs timespace that fits movement into a life, our movement has to fit into a group of people—a group of others who recognize movement as a need.
Start with a walking buddy, get your family involved, create walking/rolling-themed events. You’re not alone in not getting the movement you want. You’re not alone in your family not getting the movement they need. Think outside the exercise box; there’s a world of movement out there. Life involves a lot of transactions, and these transactions are mostly between people. Make the transactions you offer (hangouts, carpooling, celebrations, emotional support) more dynamic and this will create space for others to meet you there. As they learn to meet more of their needs dynamically, their new space for movement invites others to move as well. As we each start moving more, especially outside of exercise, the more we can all move more for what we need.
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We can often control what the walking distance is to something by choosing how far away we want to park from the place we're going. Said another way, you can drive part way and scale a walk that meets better your needs. And another tip: GET OTHERS TO MOVE WITH YOU. We had a school field trip today and there was a parking lot a half mile from drop-off. A short text "meet at the parking lot 30 minutes beforehand so we can walk the kids together/drop any kids at our house early if you need and we'll walk them too" (#alloparents) meant sixteen of us got some play/walk/family/fun time in before school. This one-mile walk might be the most nutrient-dense mile I get all day.... #stackyourlife #movementmatters #moveyourdna #letthemmovetheirdna #vitamincommunity #marchforth #walkingschoolbus
There have never been more dollars in, and data from, movement research, or more people talking about our need for it—yet people are moving LESS. Why? My experiment has got me thinking about movement instruction and how important it is to teach how life-parts need to move alongside arm and leg parts.
This is the “why” I walked 440 miles: My greatest interest and training have always been in the mechanics of walking—how the lever systems throughout the body push and pull naturally, to make walking possible. But the bigger picture reveals that in order to get these walking-lever systems moving, they need space to do so. This is where mobility justice comes into play: we need planning and advocacy for everyone to have access to walkability or roll-ability. But when we pan out even wider, we see that even walkable spaces and walkable communities are not being walked in. If I’ve got the physical ability and the tools to improve it, sidewalks and parks, and the freedom to choose where I put my time, and I’m still not walking, WHAT NOW?
I spent years thinking that to solve a problem you start by addressing its smallest element and slowly work your way out, but I think differently now. I think you constantly zoom in and out as what you find in each perspective informs the other. Walking 440 miles was a zoom out to see the interplay between my ankles and my community, between our local 100-mile trail system and how few of the people I know use it. Walking 440 miles was a way to see not only my landscape at human-speed, but also our sedentary society at human-speed. Ironically, sedentary humans move very quickly, while walking ones might even appear to be almost still.
Walking also looks and feels isolating. Like any counter-cultural practice, walking puts you on the outskirts of humanity, or at least of the humans in your sedentary group. I think this is likely the biggest barrier to movement we all face. In our fear of being outsiders, we’ve become…well, insiders.
While I’ll continue to move at least three hours a day, until I can figure out how to open more time-space, I won’t keep walking ten miles a day, primarily because I like more diversity in my movement. However, I do believe a large volume of daily walking is a “part” many physiological systems depend on. I’ve also never felt better than I have fitting those ten miles and other micromovements in. So, I’ve decided to make my daily walking baseline a 10K (6.2 miles, but I do love a round number, so kilometers it is) and keep up with my longer, 20-mile quarterly walks, as those help me embody the phenomenon of walkability, not only for my own self-interest, but for humans and non-humans in my community and elsewhere.
P.S. My editor says next year, “Hey KB, how about just a roller skating party?” but I’ve done that. We need a drastic cultural shift, and we need it now. If you have a safe place to walk, use it, and invite others to join you.
P.P.S. My editor wants you to know she also likes walking and drastic cultural shifts, her suggestion has more to do with the fact that my writing takes a lot of editing.
P.P.P.S. I really do love a roller skating party. Because, well, you know…RASPBERRY BERET.
For my essays on a sedentary culture, outsourced movement, and “stack your life” read Movement Matters. Listen to podcast episode #103: The City Moves You, on urban planning and mobility justice. I’m an American Walks “Woman of the Walking Movement”; read this interview. For more exercises to get your body walking-ready, check out my foot books or the Get Ready to Walk Kit.