Daily Step Goals: Historical-ish Claims from a Scientific-ish Perspective

If you happened to be a legionary during the early Roman Empire, you were accustomed to walking. In fact, according to Roman military writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (known by his friends and most practical historians as simply Vegetius), these guys were expected every day to march a little over 18 miles in about five hours or so.

And the sad part is, they aren’t even getting full credit for their hard work. They’ll have to go to the app later and add “lugging heavy equipment, 5 hours.” photo credit: Marcia via photopin (license)

Given that the Roman hour became longer and shorter depending on the season (don’t think about that too hard or you’ll get a headache), it’s difficult to know exactly how much time the soldiers were given to compete their strenuous hike. But to put the task into a little bit of modern day perspective, they didn’t reach their daily Fitbit goal until somewhere around 45,000 steps. Even if they had the full day to work on it, that’s a lot of walking.

As the number of personal fitness trackers I’m seeing worn has exploded over the last few years, I’m guessing by now that most of you are aware that if you’re not getting your prescribed minimum 10,000 steps each day, you’re probably going to die or something. Well, someday, anyway.

But it turns out, the recommendation to take at least 10,000 steps per day, in order to be an active, healthy person, isn’t an especially scientific one. It most likely comes from a brand of Japanese pedometer marketed in the 1960’s under the name manpo-kei , which, if you can believe everything you read on the Internet,  roughly translates to “10,000 steps meter.”

So, like with a lot of un-scientific ideas that sound pretty logical and scientific-ish, 10,000 was adopted as the number to walk toward.

Evidently typing doesn’t count as exercise.

While that may not be a lot in the daily life of the average long-distance runner or floor nurse at a large hospital, most of us don’t take more than about 4 to 7 thousand in a day, unless we really work at it. And as a writer, I have to make an intentional effort to get there, because like most writers, I get my best work done on the days I spend a lot of time sitting.

Of course when I say most, I have to exclude historical novelist Ben Kane. Kane writes novels set in Ancient Rome, and while doing so, he spends a lot of time at his desk. He explains that after six novels, he started to realize that while writing is great for sharpening the mind, it’s not so great for trimming the waistline. So Kane grabbed some friends, some typical legionary garb, and about 42 pounds of equipment (still only about half what an actual legionary may have carried). Then he started marching.

Now that’s dedication to the craft. I currently write in the era of 19th century America, and it’s pretty rare (and by that I mean it never happens) for me to don my petticoat and corset to order to take a stroll. But I do have a Fitbit and I try to reach a somewhat arbitrary step goal every day.

One of my better days. But I definitely wasn’t wearing full legionary garb. Or a petticoat.

And, really, arbitrary may describe the 45,000 daily steps credited to Roman soldiers by Vegetius, because some scholars have argued that as a writer who never actually donned eighty pounds of legionary garb and equipment, and who wrote in the fourth-century about the bygone era of early Roman Empire military might, Vegetius may not be a strictly reliable source. In other words, Vegetius may have been more practical historian than actual military historian, and he may have had the tendency to exaggerate.

But it really would have been important for a well-oiled military machine to be able to march long distances with great stamina, so if not exactly reliable history, the writer’s claims at least sound historical-ish.

And sometimes I think that’s good enough. Because what most medical experts are saying about fitness bands is that they are helping people become more aware of their sedentary tendencies and in many cases, are encouraging people to get up and move more than they were. We may not all get to 10,000 steps every day, but if we are making an effort to get there, then we are probably improving our health.

You can take my word for it. Because I’m a writer. And my claim sounds pretty scientific-ish.

Who says spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees?

1957 was a banner year for Switzerland’s spaghetti farmers. A mild winter paired with a dramatic decrease in the population of the dreaded spaghetti weevil led to the record harvest that has to this day never been equaled.  Small family farms went into overdrive plucking spaghetti strands from the trees that had been carefully cultivated to produce spaghetti of precisely the same length. The harvest was followed, as always, by a feast featuring the traditional dish, which, of course, is spaghetti, harvested and sun-dried fresh that morning.

This was the report presented by BBC news program Panorama on April 1, 1957. Panorama had long been a source of reliable serious news. After the story aired, viewers flooded the network with calls, a few of which were disgruntled viewers, but most of which were people genuinely interested in the story. Some even asked how they might grow their own spaghetti trees.

To be fair to the public duped by such a ridiculous prank, spaghetti was not yet a widely known dish in England. It was available only in a canned form and, really, canned vegetables (which have been nearly as processed as spaghetti’s original grain anyway) can kind of resemble pasta in texture. And Panorama went all out. I have to admit, it is a pretty convincing segment.

I have to wonder, though, why a serious news program would sacrifice its integrity to pull a silly prank on its trusting audience? The answer to that question is irritatingly unclear. I mean, yes, the BBC was participating in the long held tradition of April Fools’ Day when we are all supposed to get a little silly and try to make fools of one another. But why do we do it?

There are a couple of theories. The most common one batted about has to do with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar which placed the start of the New Year on January 1 instead of the vernal equinox, which happens just a little before April 1. Only fools continued to celebrate the old holiday instead of the new and so they became the victims of ridicule. One trouble with this theory is that England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 and by then, April Fools’ Day had already long been a thing.

In 1983, Joseph Boskin, a Boston University history professor, presented perhaps a more plausible theory. According to the professor, a court jester by the name of Kugal claimed that he could run the Roman Empire better than Emperor Constantine. Amused by the claim (because if history has taught us anything it’s that Roman emperors liked having their authority challenged), Constantine gave up his throne for a day to Kugal whose first order of business was to declare a day of foolishness. The problem with this theory, of course, is that Boskin made the whole thing up as an elaborate April Fools’ prank.

And that, I think, is why we will never know the real history behind this very silly day that turns the most serious of people into

This image shows a Paradise fish (Macropodus o...
April Fish!

slightly mean-spirited jokesters. It is a day that has French children pinning paper fish to their teachers’ backs, pointing and erupting in giggles as they announce: “Poisson d’Avril!” (roughly translated as, “French children are not particularly known to be clever pranksters!”).

It is a day that encourages an otherwise loving sister to empty a Cadbury Cream Egg of its fondant center and reseal it with chopped onions packed inside so that she can coax her trusting brother into taking a bite (Alas, I can’t claim this one as my own as it was my sister who pulled off this feat. I did laugh, though.)

Maybe we just do it because the sun is finally shining a little more brightly, the flowers are starting to bloom, and the fading memory of the harsh trudge through winter makes us a little giddy. Whatever the reason for it, today is the day for harvesting spaghetti, assuming you remembered to plant your tree. According to the BBC all you have to do is “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce, and hope for the best.”

Nothing says Spring like a plate of home grown spaghetti.
Nothing says Spring like a plate of home grown spaghetti.