The problem with counting steps
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
Achieving 10,000 steps per day seems to have become a badge of honour in recent years. I'm going to put myself out there, at great risk of receiving some serious stick from some serious step-counters. Also, to mitigate this risk, let me also be clear, this post isn't "why you shouldn't count steps". It's "The problem with counting steps". I'm not saying don't do it. I'm saying there's more out there.
It's probably also worth pointing out the obvious benefits of walking at this point too. It's free, almost everyone can do it, you don't need any special kit or training and it's an activity that could not be more natural for the body. This means you'll be moving with the correct mechanics, using the right muscles, not over-stressing the body etc.
The problem with walking (and thus the whole counting steps thing) is the intensity of the exercise.
The World Health Organisation (and therefore lots of public organisations worldwide) recommends adults get 150 mins per week of 'moderate exercise' (or 75 mins 'vigorous' but we don't need to go there for this post).
Well what's 'moderate' exercise?
'Moderate' means exercise that gets your heart beating at between 50-70% of it's maximum ability (max heart rate). This sounds complicated but it really isn't. I'm a pretty typical adult so let's take me as an example. I'm about 40 years old. Therefore my max heart rate is probably around 180 beats per minute (220-age). Therefore, I need to be exercising at an intensity which gets my heart to 90-125 beats per minute.
And walking doesn't. I walked for 30 minutes at my a standard pace earlier today and my heart rate didn't go above 90. Not once. Therefore counting my daily steps doesn't help me achieve my recommended levels of exercise to keep me healthy (let alone improve my health).
Ok, so let's up the intensity then. I also did a separate walk of 30 mins today as fast as I could (literally, any faster and I would have been jogging so quite hard to maintain for 30 mins). The highest my heart rate got to was 102. Ok, so now we're 'in the zone'.
But if I had to walk absolutely as fast as I could to get my heart to approx 55% of it's maximum it does suggest that the vast majority of my walking isn't getting me to the recommended intensity.
Warning: sales pitch coming up. At TeamUp you have to 'earn' 150 points per week. You get 1 point per minute of exercise with all exercise from A FAST WALK upwards included. That means you're likely to be getting your points from exercise which is done at the right intensity.
Everyone should walk for recreation and exercise. It's great for the body and great for the mind. However, if you've never been into heart rate training (most haven't) then do keep in mind you may not be exercising at the recommended intensity to get all the health benefits exercise can bring.
On a more positive note, there's something referred to as NEAT. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. It's a topic for another post but, in essence, the more active we are when we're not actually exercising the more energy we'll use. If you work in a supermarket and cover a few miles a day walking up and down aisles etc you'll have burned more calories (energy) than someone working in an office, sitting in a chair. This means steps aren't to be ignored.
Summary... the more active you are the better. The more you move the better. There's no argument. I'm simply suggesting that often the walking you do won't get the body exercising at an intensity that will challenge the body enough to reap the rewards of slightly more intense exercise.
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