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What is the best way to measure exercise?

Setting a daily target of either 7,000 or 10,000 steps is a simple way to boost physical activity levels, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues. However, the current U.S. physical activity guidelines recommend measuring activity in minutes rather than steps, suggesting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity weekly. A recent study found that both step-based and time-based goals were associated with lower risks of mortality and cardiovascular events among older women, highlighting the importance of finding an approach that works best for individual health goals. As exercise preferences vary, guidelines should offer diverse methods to accommodate different lifestyles and preferences, recognizing that all forms of movement contribute positively to overall health and well-being.

Comparing Exercise Duration to Step Count: Which is Better?

In this study, researchers analyzed data from nearly 15,000 healthy women aged 62 or older who took part in the Women’s Health Study. From 2011 to 2015, participants wore research-grade activity monitors for seven consecutive days, removing them only for sleep, bathing, or swimming. Additionally, they completed annual questionnaires regarding their health, including cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes, with participant deaths reported by family members or postal services. The researchers followed the participants until the end of 2022.

The median physical activity time for participants was 62 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week, with a median daily step count of 5,183 steps. Notably, half of the participants engaged in at least this level of activity or steps daily. Predictably, higher levels of physical activity, whether measured by time or step count, were associated with reduced risks of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events. The most active women, comprising the top quarter, exhibited a 30% to 40% lower risk compared to the least active quarter.

Furthermore, after nine years of follow-up, participants in the top three-quarters of physical activity time and step counts lived approximately 2.22 and 2.36 months longer than those in the lowest quarter, respectively, even after adjusting for body mass index (BMI). Interestingly, the results of both analyses were consistent for step counts and minutes.

While this study contributes valuable insights into diverse methods of tracking physical activity, the researchers caution that it assessed participants’ physical activity at only one point in time. Moreover, being an observational study, it cannot establish causation. Researchers aim to conduct a randomized controlled trial in the future to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between health outcomes and tracking exercise via minutes or step counts.

The best way to track your workouts

Although step counts are suitable for activities like walking, hiking, and running, incorporating them not only during workouts but also throughout the day, they may not be the optimal method for tracking these activities. Karly Mendez, a human performance specialist at Memorial Hermann, suggests that the choice between using step counts or tracking minutes is a matter of personal preference, as both higher step counts and increased minutes of activity are associated with improved health outcomes. However, James Rodgers, an experienced coach and competitive runner, notes that some individuals find tracking steps beneficial for maintaining motivation and gradually increasing their activity levels. Nevertheless, he warns that beginners may find setting step count goals overwhelming and recommends quantifying activity time instead, such as committing to a 30-minute walk after lunch. Additionally, Rodgers highlights that step counts do not consider the terrain, as completing 8,000 steps on hilly terrain requires more effort than on flat ground. Therefore, tracking minutes may be a better option when navigating diverse terrains, facilitating steadier progress according to Rodgers.

Personalizing your workouts

There are alternative methods to gauge your physical activity, such as tracking both duration and intensity, offering a more personalized approach. What constitutes an “intense” workout varies from person to person, so aiming for intensity levels tailored to your capabilities fosters gradual progression. Karly Mendez recommends allocating 80% of your weekly activity volume to zone 2 and 20% to zone 4/5, adaptable to any activity you prefer. Zone 2 workouts allow for conversational ease, while zone 4/5 involves sustaining a high heart rate and allowing it to return to rest, she explained. James Rodgers suggests monitoring intensity by tracking heart rate, ensuring a diverse range of heart rate zones during workouts to prevent performance plateaus. Heart rate monitoring accommodates variations in terrain, adjusting intensity accordingly, such as during uphill walks or runs. While step counts and workout metrics can be motivational, Rodgers emphasizes maintaining a balanced training approach, incorporating activities like strength training for optimal benefits. Karly Mendez underscores the importance of variety, recommending alternating between tracking steps and duration while prioritizing daily activity to maintain consistency and enjoyment. Ultimately, finding activities you genuinely enjoy and establishing a sustainable workout routine is key to long-term adherence and success.

Key Point

While step counting has gained popularity, U.S. physical activity guidelines focus on weekly minutes rather than steps. However, a recent study indicates that both step counts and minutes can effectively track activities like walking, hiking, and running, correlating with reduced risks of mortality and cardiovascular events in older women. Experts stress the importance of finding a balanced approach to tracking activity, incorporating various exercises such as strength training, and avoiding excessive fixation on metrics.

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