Illustrations by Brown Bird Design for TIME
January 12, 2023 10:42 AM EST

Every day for the past decade, I’ve tried to dethrone the family walking champ: my 67-year-old dad. Despite my youthful advantage—he has more than 30 years on me, as he’s quick to point out—I haven’t logged more steps than him once. I find this to be both mortifying and a point of vicarious pride; his fitness is remarkable. It’s also excellent motivation to find creative ways to finally out-walk him.

My dad and I compete using our favorite pedometer app, which displays each day’s steps in a bar graph. (While we both wear Apple Watches, we like the app best for logging the entire day’s steps, and keep our phones on us all the time.) If you’ve barely moved, your results for the day show up in a disapproving red. If you land somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 steps, it’s a milder orange. And once you reach 10,000 steps per day, the graph becomes green and showers your phone screen with confetti as you jump up and down (and maybe forward; more steps). We send each other screenshots at the end of the day, and while I hit 10,000 at least a few times a week, he exceeds 20,000 steps every single day.

Fitness experts say that really, both of us are winning: Striving to increase your step count by any amount is almost always a good thing. “Walking is probably the most basic, most fundamental thing that nearly everybody has the ability to do,” says Dr. Tamanna Singh, co-director of the Sports Cardiology Center at Cleveland Clinic. “It allows us to get our heart rate elevated, and to build up our aerobic endurance. It helps control our blood pressure, it helps control our cholesterol, it helps with weight management, and it helps with blood sugar control.”

Walking is a low-impact activity, which means it’s gentle on the joints—and unlike other types of exercise, there’s no learning curve to do it properly or safely. Research indicates that it can improve body mass index, lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes and stroke, and slash the chances of early death. According to a study published in 2012, walking for about an hour a day can cut the effects of weight-promoting genes in half. Another study found that just a 15-minute walk can curb cravings for chocolate, while another yet suggested that people who walked at least 20 minutes a day, five days per week, logged 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. Clearly, there are more reasons than not to take a walk.

Generally, the more steps you aim for a day, the better. But don’t worry if you fail to meet the 10,000-per-day benchmark. “That was a number thrown out there really as more of a marketing ploy,” says Cedric X. Bryant, president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “If individuals can get about 7,000 steps or so, they’re going to be doing a pretty good job of hitting the mark.” Of course, it depends on your own personal profile, he adds: Someone who currently does little to no daily activity will benefit from logging just a couple thousand steps per day. “It takes a very small dose to elicit a pretty nice response.”

Here are nine ways to step up your steps—and make achieving your goal extra fun.

Recruit a workout buddy or join a walking club

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Partway into the pandemic, fitness trainer Brianna Joye Kohn realized that many of her friends had fled New York City. She missed being able to call them up to go on a walk—so she posted a TikTok video inviting her million-plus followers to join her for a stroll through the city. “I thought maybe I’d get 10 or 20,” she recalls. Around 300 women showed up. Now, Kohn leads City Girls Who Walk, a club that meets every Sunday for a 40-minute walk. More than 700 people of all ages joined one of the group’s recent outings. Walking with a group offers accountability and can make exercising more fun; there are also a variety of mental-health benefits, including reduced loneliness, Kohn has found. Spinoffs of her club have popped up around the world. If there’s not one where you live, consider launching your own. “Don’t be scared of taking that first step and posting about it, because you never know who you’re going to meet or who will want to join,” she says.

Stop texting people who are nearby

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What do you do when you want to talk to someone upstairs or down the hall? “We probably yell, and we probably text,” Bryant says. (Guilty.) “Instead, get up, walk, and communicate with them face-to-face.” Replace every text, email, call, or Slack to the nearby target of your attention with an in-person visit, and your daily step count will soar.

Walk in place during TV shows

When you’re watching non-streaming TV, stand up every time there’s a commercial break and march in place until the show resumes, Bryant suggests. “We know that disrupting sedentary behavior is very beneficial,” he adds. For example, research suggests that standing up and moving for about three minutes every half an hour may lessen the negative health effects associated with prolonged sitting. Other studies have found that three one-minute bursts of activity every day promote longevity, and that stepping in place during TV commercials can indeed increase physical activity and daily steps.

Get (or borrow) a dog

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It’s one thing to skip a walk and disappoint yourself; it’s another to let down a set of puppy-dog eyes. That’s why every morning, two hours before work, my standard poodle and I go for a 3-mile walk. He moves at one speed—a gallop—which means we very efficiently log a lot of steps.

Research published in Scientific Reports in 2019 indicates that dog owners are four times more likely to meet exercise recommendations than those who are canine-free. More than half of the dog owners surveyed reported walking their pet for at least 150 minutes per week at a pace of 2.5 miles per hour. An earlier study, published in 2017, found that dog owners spent 22 extra minutes per day walking and took 2,760 additional steps per day.

If you don’t have a dog, Singh suggests volunteering to walk dogs at a local animal shelter. “It’s a great way for people to move and also do a little bit of service,” she says. “You’re helping yourself as much as you’re helping a little animal, and they deserve to walk as much as we do.”

Try a fitness tracker

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Research suggests that fitness trackers are motivating: One study, published in 2022, found that people who used a pedometer walked nearly 400 steps per day more than those without one. And when Australian researchers reviewed hundreds of studies involving 164,000 people worldwide using wearable fitness trackers, they concluded that the devices encouraged walking up to 40 minutes more each day, which equated to about 1,800 additional steps.

“Especially if you’re a visual person, it’s a great way to see your progress,” Singh says. “I think sometimes we under- or overestimate how much we move, so to have an actual marker of that is very helpful.”

Create some competition

My dad and I compete for bragging rights—but Singh suggests elevating the stakes. Create a competition with your friends, family members, or colleagues, and commit to at least eight to 12 weeks, she advises. “Try to accrue a certain number of steps per month or per week, and maybe have a couple prizes intermittently.” At the end of the competition, whoever has the greatest number of steps will win, for example, a gift card to their favorite restaurant or a celebratory gathering in their honor. “It’s a friendly way to get something positive out of competition, and still be supportive of each other,” Singh says.

Have mobile meetings

As Bryant told me his favorite walking strategies, he was in motion. “I have a headset on and I’m moving the whole time,” he told me. In addition to walking inside or outside during calls, he aims to host walking meetings with his colleagues. You can do the same. Notify meeting attendees in advance so they can dress accordingly, and choose a flat path—ideally in a quiet area like a park.

If it’s cold outside, design an indoor circuit

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On a recent December evening, my dad and I realized we were both 200 steps short of our goals. So we marched up and down the stairs, and through the hallway, over and over again, cheering along the way.

It might feel slightly ridiculous, but indoor circuits are effective, Singh says. Turn on some music and form a conga line through the house, or listen to an entertaining podcast. She suggests committing to climbing the stairs a certain number of times every day. “It’s an incredible way to build endurance, power, and strength,” she says.

There are lots of other great ways to take advantage of indoor movement, too, says certified personal trainer Michael Jones. He recommends running in place (or on a treadmill), shadow boxing, and dancing. “They’re fun, and sure to get your heart rate up and help you hit your step goals without leaving the house,” he says.

Always be prepared

To cultivate a no-excuses lifestyle, Singh recommends always keeping your sneakers with you. Heading out on errands? Commuting to and from work? Pack your walking shoes, so if the opportunity arises, you can pop out of your car and sneak in a quick walk. “Keep them where you see them,” she says.

That pairs nicely with my super-walker dad’s best advice on getting a lot of steps: “Discipline is key,” he told me. “And then the willpower to follow through. I make myself do it.”

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