Why walking 10,000 steps a day isn’t going to make you more fit

Moderate to vigorous exercise drastically improves your fitness compared to milder exercise.
• Walking 10,000 steps is still impressive, but it won’t improve your fitness level.
• Moderate-intensity workouts can come in many forms, like a brisk walk or pushing a lawnmower.

Anyone who replaced their pre-pandemic gym habits with walking isn’t coming close to getting the same fitness boost as they once had. 

A new study found that the common 10,000-step goal isn’t really going to make people more fit than they were before. Sure, walking is still good, but it’s just not as good as more moderate to vigorous exercise, according to the study.

Why walking is not enough 

New research conducted at the Boston University School of Medicine found that periods of moderate to vigorous exercise — working out with more intensity — drastically improved fitness. That was compared to milder forms of exercise, like walking throughout the day.

The study, published in European Heart Journal, comes as many Americans try to find the right balance for physical activity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite gyms and other fitness places reopening, a recent study found that more than half of Americans said they won’t return to their gyms in 2021, and many have adopted new forms for exercise, such as at-home yoga, Peloton bikes, running, and walking around the neighborhood.

Researchers said that for each minute of moderate to vigorous exercise, it would require more than three minutes of intermediate cadence walking and more than 14 minutes less sedentary time in order to meet the same level of cardiorespiratory fitness.

Matthew Naylor, assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, said that 10,000 steps are still associated with higher fitness levels in the study, so following step counts is still a good form of exercise.

“[I]f your goal is to improve your fitness level, or to slow down the inescapable decline in fitness that occurs with aging, performing at least a moderate level of exertion [through intentional exercise] is over three times more efficient than just walking at a relatively low cadence,” he said.

Considering the fact that you can spend up to eight hours a day sitting at a desk for work, mixing in small breaks to stand up and walk can benefit both your physical and mental health. One recent study found that frequent activity breaks from sitting can improve fasting blood sugar levels and stabilize daily fluctuations. It would only require workers to get up for three minutes every 30 minutes, mixing in low-to-moderate-intensity exercises, such as climbing a few flights of stairs or taking as few as 15 steps during these breaks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. That number may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to come in long periods — exercises can be broken into smaller workouts and can be distributed through several forms of activities.

Moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity can come in many forms, such as brisk walking, water aerobics, riding a bike on level ground, playing doubles tennis, and even pushing a lawnmower.

Vigorous aerobic activity is designed to make your heart rate increase, which means you’ll breathe harder and faster. These activities include:

  • Jogging or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Riding a bike fast or on hills
  • Playing singles tennis
  • Playing basketball

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