Counting steps is one of the longest-standing methods for measuring physical activity levels. Tracking steps has never been easier, with the ubiquity of smartphones and wearable devices that automatically count steps, walking, and running distances. Some devices will even notify you when you reach your step goal with a gentle vibration and celebratory digital display.

Although technology has improved since the days of the classic pedometer, a recent study by the University of California, San Francisco suggests that individuals are taking fewer steps than before the COVID-19 pandemic. The data included more than 140 million daily step count measurements provided by more than 1.25 million users from more than 200 countries and territories. Globally, step counts were distinctly lower early in the pandemic than pre-pandemic levels and remained lower through 2022.

This study indicates that we developed new habits during the pandemic involving less physical activity and have yet to fully adjust our behaviors.

Why Step Counts Matter

The “magic number” for steps has long been a topic of debate. Most people think the answer is 10,000 steps per day because that is the amount often recommended on the internet, and the default daily goal on their Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, or other wearable devices.

So, what is the right number of steps? The short answer is it depends on many factors, including diet and other health conditions. From a public health perspective, there is a clear step threshold that dramatically reduces risk factors and mortality rates.

According to a study published in 2020 by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of steps a person takes each day has a strong association with mortality. They found that taking 8,000 steps per day was associated with a 51% lower risk for all-cause mortality (or death from all causes) compared with taking 4,000 steps. Taking 12,000 steps per day was associated with a 65% lower risk.

How The Pandemic Made It More Difficult To Exercise

The far-reaching impacts of the pandemic on almost every facet of life are well documented. However, reduced access to physical activity took a backseat to the more immediate health risks posed by the COVID-19 virus, as well as the widely recognized toll on mental health.

The threat of infection and corresponding lockdown mandates made it increasingly difficult for employees to exercise. Gyms shut down during the early stages of the pandemic and experienced a series of reopenings and closures in response to public health recommendations. This prompted the rise of in-home fitness routines and virtual exercise classes, which provided a new outlet for those with the means and access to such resources.

With the transition to hybrid and remote work environments, commuting to the office scaled back worldwide. The average worker could no longer count on a baseline of steps from their daily commute, walking to and from meetings, or other office gatherings. This disruption of personal routines was particularly acute with working parents who previously relied on schools and other childcare systems during workdays.

Although research indicates a gradual return to pre-pandemic physical activity levels worldwide, companies can take action to promote more movement within their organizations.

A walking challenge is a straightforward and well-known type of company fitness challenge that many human resources departments turn to when it comes to encouraging physical activity. Both in-office and remote employees can participate, creating more opportunities for employees to socialize and enjoy some healthy competition.

On-demand classes provide easily accessible resources to employees, regardless of their physical location. Programs with the highest utilization often include a variety of class categories, with studio-quality videos that are unavailable through YouTube or other free subscriptions.

On-site fitness classes are also a great way to provide benefits for in-office workers, motivate movement, and support healthy lifestyles. Look for all-level fitness classes designed so anyone can participate, regardless of their experience level or physical limitations.

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