Counting steps is all the rage as advances in wearable tech intersect with calls to increase physical activity. Even folk who rarely see the inside of a gym are circling the block once last time before bed to reach the magic number. But is the number of steps the best measure of fitness? What other metrics should we be looking at? And are all steps the same?
Credit for the concept of pedometers has been given to Leonardo Da VInci, Thomas Jefferson and others. The parent of Biostrap and other modern accelerometers was the digital display, spring-levered pedometers which emerged in 1995. Steps, for the first time, could be used to measure ambulatory physical activity with reasonable medical accuracy. Today’s researchers and clinicians use accelerometry as the foremost measure of physical activity and sedentary behavior.
Let’s Get Physical
Why do we measure steps? Because physical activity is the number one health factor within our control. And what gets measured, gets done.
In 1953 doctors discovered the link between physical activity, cardiac disease, and mortality. The London Transport Workers Study compared the health records of bus conductors (ticket takers) who constantly moved up and down the bus steps, with the more sedentary bus drivers. A striking contrast emerged. Increased physical activity was directly linked to fewer heart attacks and reduced mortality. Exercise, it seemed, had a protective effect on heart health.
Medica research continues to amplify this finding. Just this year a study of healthy non-smoking Glasgow postal workers connected to time spent sitting with significantly higher coronary heart disease and waist circumference.
“Walking is the simplest form of exercise,” per Harvard Medical School, “and using a pedometer is a good way to get yourself to do it.” The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that step counters walk 2,000 more steps a day and increase overall physical activity by 27%. Other longitudinal interventions have helped inactive people increase steps by 2500 per day.
The Magic Number
Regained Wellness. “10,000 steps is roughly the amount it takes to lose 1 pound a week. A pound of fat contains 3500 calories and to burn 500 calories it requires around 10,000 steps. Over the course of the week taking that many steps a day burns 3500 calories or one pound of fat. That’s in the healthy range.”
Don’t Just Sit There. Do Something.
A sedentary lifestyle is hazardous to your health. Many of us remain sedentary at work and rest. SItting at a desk. Watching TV on the couch. New evidence indicates that decreasing sedentary behavior is just as important as increasing physical activity.
“Too much time sitting,” says Logie, “is linked to decreased mineral bone density and excessive weight. Excessive sitting also decreases an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase or LPL. LPL can help burn fat. When you sit for 2 hours or longer you essentially turn it off.”
Reaching the magic number of steps is key, but even more significant is the range, variability, and timing of those steps. It’s not enough to step up physical activity. For maximal benefits, you must also avoid sustained spells of sitting.
Short breaks of movement stoke the metabolism and promote heart health and circulation. Think of it as interval training. Alternating sitting and moving have a far greater cumulative health impact than taking 10,000 steps all at once then remaining idle the rest of the day.
10,000 Steps Australia says adults may struggle to reach 10,000 steps without planning. Choose to be active with a series of small decisions. Avoid prolonged sitting. Park farther away from the grocery store. Get out of your chair to channels instead of using the remote. Walk out of the room during commercials (even empty the dishwasher or throw in a load of laundry). Waiting for the train? Circle the lot or pace the platform. Standing in line at the bank? Move your feet. Look for new ways to move. Take an extra flight of stairs. Use part or all of your lunch break to move. Find a ‘steps buddy’ to walk with you at home or work.
Movement specialist Janis Isaman agrees it takes planning and effort. “Leave the car at home and walk to work, for example.”
“Make it a point to never go more than 30-60 minutes without getting up and moving for at least 5 minutes,” says Logie. “It’s about spreading steps out so your entire day doesn’t have long periods of sitting.”
(Not) Everybody’s Doing It.
But easier said than done.
Researchers have classified five activity levels:
- <5000 steps/day = sedentary
- 5000-7499 (excluding sports/exercise) = low active
- 7500-9999 includes volitional activities (and/or elevated occupational activity demands) = somewhat active
- >10000 steps/day = active
- >12500 steps/day = highly active
Yet only 49% of Americans are physically active enough.
Is 15,000 the new 10,000?
Maybe 10,000 is just the start. A new study out of Scotland found that, when it comes to physical activity and health, the more the better. 15,000 steps is superior to 10,000.
Isaman concurs, calling 15,000 the minimum for physical and mental health. She recommends that her clients start with a baseline measurement and increase from there. “Someone who is taking 4,000 steps likely can’t jump to 15,000 easily in a week. So 10,000 is a good starting place. But it doesn’t make you fit — it makes you not sedentary.”
Researchers caution that increasing recommended minimums might discourage ordinary folk from trying. The high guideline can have a demotivating effect on low-fitness people. If evidence-based minimums seem unattainable, people might abandon their efforts. Some activity (any activity!) is always better than no activity.
Cardiologist David Sabgir MD FACC founded Walk with a Doc. Frustrated by his patient’s inability to get moving, he offered to walk with them. “7500 steps a day is great. That is fairly equivalent to 20-30 minutes/walking a day or 150 minutes a week. These are awesome target equivalents.” Steps are popular, he says, because with wearable tech they’ve become “an objective measure that we don’t need to think about and they have scientific data to back them up.”
Wearable technology can help motivate you to keep moving,” says Logie, “and keep you accountable in a small way. The issue is the majority of people stop using their fitness trackers after four months.”
Roderick Benman certified Master Fitness Trainer A+ Fitness LLC says measuring steps can provide a good sense of confidence, but it’s only a part of overall fitness. There is a lot to consider,” he says, “for instance, your heart rate. You may walk 14,000 steps in one day but your average heart rate was 104-110 bpm. If your fitness goals are weight loss, then the heart rate is ideal. So when considering how many steps one should take, make sure you factor in heart rate and know what your fitness goals are.”Wearable tech can give us the entire picture across all metrics.”
Laura Arndt, NSCA-CSCS, CEO of Matriarc says, “Use the step counter as just one way to judge activity and don’t rely on it as the only tool for health improvement. Your muscle mass to body fat ratio, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and overall BMI are part of your health make-up.”
Arndt recommends that her clients wear a step tracker for a week, average their scores, and resolve “to improve by 5-10 percent per week until they reach their goal number of steps.” Runners, she adds, will actually take fewer steps than walkers for the same amount of distance.
Ask any parent: kids glued to technology aren’t physically active. A study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine identified technology as a key factor in physical activity and recommends more research. It’s a double-edged sword with positive implications: “Technology has contributed to an increase in sedentary behavior but has also led to innovative physical activity interventions.” Wearable tech doesn’t just measure progress. It actually motivates people to do more.
“People have become fascinated with tracking their levels of physical activity,” says a recent report in Sports Medicine. “This is part of a larger movement known as ‘the quantified self’ in which people seeking knowledge through numbers, and use technology to acquire data on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of physiological variables, environmental exposures, and psychological mood states”.
Health-minded folk have been measuring steps for fifty years. This is no fad, it’s a bedrock of fitness, especially for non-athletes who benefit from external motivational support. Even for the superfit, as tech grows more advanced and ubiquitous, there will be a corresponding increase in potential health benefits. MIT Technology Review calls it The Measured Life. And that’s a step in the right direction.