DETROIT, Mich. — Marcia Varner’s bright yellow sneakers were laced up. They didn’t exactly go with her black pencil skirt, but she wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement.
About to pound the Detroit RiverWalk during a sunny lunch break, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan manager was on a mission to rack up 5,000 steps by the time she left the office.
“I come out here at lunch, and I make it a point to take a long way if I go to the kitchen or ladies room,” she says.
Averaging 12,000 to 20,000-plus steps a day, the 52-year-old runner from Grosse Pointe Farms often exceeds the recommended 10,000 steps, or 5 miles, a day. Varner reached 55,000 one Saturday alone after running a marathon — but that’s on the extremely high end of the step spectrum.
On average, Detroiters took 7,693 steps a day in 2015, according to Fitbit data compiled for The Detroit News. That puts Detroit at No. 21 on a list of nearly 100 U.S. cities with the highest daily step counts. (The data includes residents and visitors in the city of Detroit, not the metropolitan area.)
In comparison, New York City ranked No. 1 with 8,404 average daily steps in 2015, followed by Boston with 8,343 steps and Jersey City for 8,202 steps. Oklahoma City landed at the bottom of the list with 7,032 steps.
While No. 21 may not be something to brag about, Shelten Yuen, Fitbit’s director of research and development, wrote in an email that it’s a decent standing.
“Detroit’s 7,693 average daily steps falls within the top 30 percent, a positive ranking among all cities evaluated,” he says.
Local fitness experts were surprised to hear Detroit even made the top 25, given other rankings. For example, Detroit was No. 42 on the 2016 American College of Sports Medicine American Fitness Index evaluating fitness for the 50 largest metro areas.
Detroit is consistently named one of “the most unhealthy cities in all of America,” says Armond Harris, co-founder of Run This Town, a grassroots movement that organizes free exercise classes every Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Milliken State Park along the Detroit riverfront. “I’m surprised and happy because 21 is low.”
Four years ago, Harris and two friends, Shawn Blanchard and Terrence Thompson, thought professionals in Detroit didn’t have many opportunities to network through fitness.
“When you go to Boston, Minnesota and San Francisco, you see great demonstrations of people being active and fit. You see people running through streets. In Detroit back in 2012, you just didn’t see that,” says Harris, who was 22 at the time. “The beautiful Detroit riverfront was under utilized, so we decided to put a fitness program there to get a lot of the cool people in Detroit out working out, with hopes that the city would follow suit.”
Run This Town now attracts hundreds of people, and more young professionals jog through downtown for post-work workouts. However, according to Fitbit, there has not been an increase in steps in Detroit from January 2013 to April 2016.
Naomi Lerman, program director for Anytime Fitness in Detroit, says a lack of public transportation and the Motor City’s reliance on cars cuts down walking.
“Compared to New Yrok, you have to walk to the train,” she says. “A lot of people don’t have a car. So if they’re not going to take the train to go to the grocery store, they’re going to walk to the little shop down the street.”
Average step counts likely vary by neighborhood, says Meg Ackerman, director of the Michigan Fitness Foundation’s Safe Routes to School.
“People who are living in some of the nicer areas of Detroit that are relatively safe, you’re going to see those numbers (are) higher,” she says, adding that Detroit’s 7,693 Fitbit step average doesn’t represent the city’s entire population.
“That number is probably low based on the fact that some people in the Detroit area who do the greatest amount of walking to work or school, probably don’t have the means to afford a Fitbit,” she says.
The brutal Michigan winters don’t help either. Detroiters took the least number of steps – 7,630 – on Jan. 10, 2015, according to Fitbit. That’s a 24 percent difference from the peak step day on June 18, 2015, when the average count was 9,515.
The seasonal disparity didn’t shock Tony Jacob, 36, a General Motors social media customer care representative, who was strolling along the RiverWalk during lunch to boost his Fitbit Charge HR steps.
“We really only have three months of good weather, so a lot of people are inside, and we spend a lot more time being inactive and probably consuming more calories than burning calories,” he says.
Tracy Vernier, 45, a Detroit Regional Chamber project manager, says the winter is “terrible” for moving during the workday.
“You literally sit for nine hours,” she says.
Another Fitbit Charge HR wearer, the 45-year-old says her desk job makes it difficult to reach 10,000 steps. Most days, she only walks 8,000.
“You don’t even realize how much during the day you sit,” Vernier says, adding that she uses a Fitbit feature that prompts users to walk 250 steps an hour. “IT’s only three minutes per hour, but some days I don’t get up for three hours…You want to get something finished or you have a deadline, and you’re like, ‘well, I can’t go take a two-minute walk now.'”
Alva White’s solution to break the desk chain?
“I try to get up for everything,” says the 43-year-old associate for Dentsu Aegis Media in Detroit.
“Even if a coworker has printed paper, I’ll walk and get that for them,” she says. “I’ll get up and get water or just walk around the floor.”
It helps that her firm organizes a Fitbit challenge, pitting teams against each other to compete for the most steps.
At Quicken Loans, some employees have devised their own contests.
“I’m pretty close to the 10,000 for the day, just because I hate losing to people,” says Josh Alexandrou, a 29-year-old underwriter. “There’s usually seven of us in the little challenge group. We just hold each other accountable.”
Four-legged friends also are good accountability partners.
Detroit resident Christine Lisee, 26, a Ford Motor Co. environmental engineer, was walking her boxer-lab, Flint, along the Dequindre Cut Greenway one evening after work. Without the dog, her steps would suffer.
“We play fetch in the morning,” she says. “So I usually have 2,000 before I get to work, but if I wouldn’t take him out, I’d leave work with like 2,000, which is always disappointing.”
Lerman of Anytime Fitness says revitalized areas like the Dequindre Cut have made it more comfortable to exercise downtown, especially at night.
“People feel safer to walk around,” she says.
“There needs to be a greater effort with the construction to connect the Midtown and downtown region so people don’t feel like they have to drive from Midtown to downtown and vice versa,” he says.
“You could walk it, and in many other cities they would walk it.”