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A new study looks at how exercise is measured. Tom Werner / Getty Images
  • Step counts and minutes are both useful ways to measure physical activity, a new study suggests.
  • A greater number of steps per day or minutes of exercise per week are both associated with lower health risks, researchers found.
  • Move more, sit less is still a good overall goal, regardless of how you track the movement.

Aiming for 7,000 or 10,000 steps a day is an easy way to increase your physical activity, which can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions.

But the current U.S. physical activity guidelines recommend that people measure their physical activity in minutes, rather than steps — specifically, at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week.

So, is it really better to count the minutes you spend exercising instead of counting your steps?

A new study suggests no.

Step- and time-based targets were both associated with lower risks of death from any cause and from cardiovascular disease events in older women, researchers found.

This suggests that finding what works for you may be the best way to meet your health goals.

“For some, especially for younger individuals, exercise may involve activities like tennis, soccer, walking or jogging, all of which can be easily tracked with steps. However, for others, it may consist of bike rides or swimming, where monitoring the duration of exercise is simpler,” study author Rikuta Hamaya, MD, PhD, a researcher in the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a news release.

“That’s why it’s important for physical activity guidelines to offer multiple ways to reach goals,” she said. “Movement looks different for everyone, and nearly all forms of movement are beneficial to our health.”

The results were published May 20 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

For the study, researchers examined data from nearly 15,000 healthy women 62 years or older who participated in the Women’s Health Study.

Between 2011 and 2015, participants were asked to wear a research-grade activity monitor for 7 days in a row, removing it only for sleeping, showering or bathing, or swimming.

Women also completed annual questionnaires which asked about their health, including cardiovascular disease events such as heart attack and stroke. Deaths of participants were reported by family members or the postal service.

Researchers followed participants through the end of 2022.

Participants’ median physical activity time was 62 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity per week, and they accumulated a median step count of 5,183 steps per day. In other words, half of the participants engaged in at least this amount of activity or daily steps.

As expected, higher levels of physical activity, measured by time or step count, were associated with a lower risk of death from any cause or cardiovascular disease events. The most active women — in the top quarter — had a 30% to 40% lower risk of these compared to the least active quarter of women.

In addition, at 9 years of follow-up, participants in the top three-quarters of physical activity time and step counts lived 2.22 and 2.36 months longer than women in the lowest quarter, respectively. This survival advantage remained even when researchers took into account participants’ body mass index (BMI).

The results for both analyses were similar for step counts and minutes.

The study adds to our understanding of different ways to track physical activity, but researchers point out that they only assessed participants’ physical activity at one time.

In addition, this is an observational study, so it cannot prove cause and effect. Researchers hope to carry out a randomized controlled trial later on to better understand the link between health and tracking exercise by minutes or step counts.

While step counts won’t work for every activity, you can use it for things like walking, hiking and running, not just during your workouts, but also throughout your day.

But that doesn’t mean step counts is the best way to track those types of activities.

Karly Mendez, a human performance specialist with Memorial Hermann, said choosing whether to use step counts or minutes is a matter of personal preference because higher levels of both have been linked to better health.

Sometimes, though, tracking steps can help people keep exercising, said James Rodgers, an expert coach and competitive runner for 20 years.

“Certain individuals respond well to setting a specific metric goal and keeping track of their progress, which helps them stay motivated in reaching a certain number,” he told Healthline. “As their fitness improves, they may aim to gradually increase the step goal.”

However, “expecting beginners to meet a step count goal might be too much pressure,” he said. “Instead, it might be easier for beginners to quantify their activity time,” such as walking for 30 minutes every day after lunch.

Step count also doesn’t take into account the terrain you are walking or running on, Rodgers pointed out. For example, doing 8,000 steps on a hilly or mountainous trail requires more effort than doing the same number of steps on a flat, paved road.

”While counting steps on an undulating trail could be excellent training for you, mirroring the number of steps you do on flat terrain may be too much,” he said, “and you risk overtraining.”

So if you are moving over different types of terrain, tracking your minutes, rather than steps, may be a better option. Also, “you will likely progress more steadily [by tracking time],” said Rodgers.

There are also other ways to measure your physical activity, such as tracking both duration and intensity.

This approach is more personalized because an “intense” workout for one person may be a “moderate” workout for another. Aiming for what’s intense for you will help you progress over time.

Mendez suggests “training 80% of your weekly volume [time] in zone 2 and 20% of your weekly volume in zone 4/5. This can be done with any activity you love.”

Zone 2 workouts are easy enough that you can talk the entire time, whereas “zone 4/5 workouts consist of getting your heart rate high, holding it high, and letting it come back down to rest,” she told Healthline.

You can also measure intensity by tracking your heart rate, said Rodgers. “Training in a variety of heart rate zones for certain durations can help to ensure your performance does not plateau.”

Heart rate monitoring will also account for the terrain, because if you are walking or running up a steep hill, your heart will likely beat faster to compensate for the increased effort.

Rodgers cautions that while step counts or other workout metrics can be good motivational tools, it’s important to not become too focused on them.

”Maintaining a balanced approach to your training is crucial,” he said. “Incorporate other aspects of exercise that may not involve steps, such as strength work, for optimal benefits.”

It’s also okay to switch things up, said Mendez, tracking steps one day and duration on other days. The key, though, is to do something active every day — aka move more, sit less.

“Do what you truly enjoy doing, and find a schedule and workout that works for you,” she said. “This is the best way to make sure you stay consistent and coming back.”

Tracking physical activity using step counts is increasingly popular, especially with the availability of smartphone apps and wearable devices. However, U.S. physical activity guidelines are based on minutes per week, rather than steps.

A new study suggests that both step counts and minutes can be useful ways to track certain types of physical activity, such as walking, hiking, and running. Higher levels of either activity measure were associated with a lower risk of death from any cause and cardiovascular disease events among older women.

Experts emphasize that it’s important to find what works for you, and not become too focused on tracking. Balance is key, they say, including doing other types of exercise, such as strength work.