Getting in your steps is a great goal. And the more, the better. Or so they say …
After all, in a PLOS ONE study, people who increased their daily step count from 1,000 to 10,000 steps cut their risk of dying during the study’s 10-year follow-up by 46%.
But here’s the problem: When we get zoned in on steps, pacing around our living room at 11:55 p.m. to hit our step goal for the day (admit it: Who hasn’t done this?), we forget the fact that steps aren’t the only metric of our fitness. Honestly, they’re not even the best one.
“While tracking steps may be a good way of initiating an awareness of one’s activity, with the idea of changing other behaviors and increasing other exercises that lead to better fitness, using number of steps as an indicator of fitness is self-deluding,” says San Diego bariatric surgeon Julie Ellner, MD.
Yikes. OK, let’s break this down a bit. And, while we’re at it, let’s be clear that steps aren’t bad — they just don’t take into account a lot of factors that influence health and wellness. Most notably steps ignore exercise intensity, explains James Borchers, MD, Director, Division of Sports Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Steps taken during a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood or a march-in-place session in front of the TV count just the same as steps taken while running to catch the bus or sprinting during a high-intensity interval workout, he says. However, 10,000 steps spent running are going to make a far greater impact on your health compared to 10,000 steps walking.
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GO AHEAD, MISS YOUR STEP GOAL
Meanwhile, some of the best workouts out there involve virtually zero steps. Swimming, cycling and lifting are all great examples. And, when it comes to improving mobility and function, increasing bone strength and revving up your fat-loss efforts, you can’t get much better than high-intensity strength training.
“All exercise is good, but when you have 30 minutes to exercise, you’re better of spending it engaging in high-intensity exercise in the gym than you are taking a couple of thousand steps around your block,” Borchers says. Case in point: In a 2015 Harvard School of Public Health study of 10,500 healthy men, those who strength trained for 20 minutes per day gained less belly fat over a period of 12 years compared to those who performed the same amount of aerobic exercise — like walking and running. We’re willing to bet that the cardio bunnies got 10,000 steps much more consistently than the lifters did. According to research published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, taking as many as 18,000 steps per day is associated with good health, but so is 4,000.
“I have many patients who have bought a pedometer and tracked their steps — proudly announcing how many they are taking each day — wonder why they don’t lose a pound,” Ellner says. “These are the same people who, when they finally join an exercise class bootcamp or lift with a personal trainer, are flabbergasted that they can’t complete a simple routine because they are out of shape.”
After all, to increase your fitness, you have to progressively overload the body — challenging it to do more and more over time. At a certain point, that’s pretty hard to do with walking. That is, unless you want to wear a weighted vest and take all of your walks uphill or you somehow have time to walk for six hours per day.
In the end, to score the fitness results you want, it’s all about improving the quality of your workouts. If that means you miss your step goal that day, so be it.