Best Way to Track Exercise: Steps or Minutes?

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With the rise of fitness watches, many people track their workouts to maintain overall fitness. But is it better to measure exercise in steps or overall minutes? Recent research offers insights into this debate.

Research Findings

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine on May 20 explored whether tracking steps or minutes of exercise is more beneficial for health. The researchers found that both metrics are associated with positive health outcomes, such as reduced risk of death and heart disease. The key takeaway is that maintaining a consistent exercise routine is more crucial than the specific method of tracking, according to experts.

Lead study author Rikuta Hamaya, MD, PhD, a research fellow in the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, noted that this research helps fill gaps in our understanding of how to best record and set exercise goals. Current guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services recommend adults get either 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly for optimal health benefits.

Comparing Step Count and Exercise Minutes

The study utilized data from 14,399 participants of the U.S. Women’s Health Study, a clinical trial that ran from 1992 to 2004. The women, at least 62 years old and free from cancer or cardiovascular disease at the study’s start, wore fitness trackers for seven days between 2011 and 2015 to monitor their MVPA, which included activities like biking, brisk walking, and playing tennis or basketball. On average, participants logged 62 minutes of MVPA per week and took 5,183 steps daily.

Participants completed annual questionnaires about their health habits and medical history through the end of 2022. At the follow-up’s conclusion, approximately 9% of the women had died, and 4% had been diagnosed with heart disease. The study found that higher levels of exercise, regardless of whether measured in steps or minutes, correlated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and mortality. Participants in the top three activity quartiles had better survival rates compared to those in the least active group.

Individualized Exercise Goals

Tiana Woolridge, MD, MPH, a primary care physician and sports medicine fellow at UCLA Health, emphasized that exercise goals can vary between individuals and still be effective. “The most important thing is to stay active, whether that means tracking steps or counting exercise minutes,” she said.

The study suggests health agencies might consider including step counts in physical activity guidelines, particularly for older adults. Hamaya noted this could provide a more personalized approach to meeting exercise recommendations, accommodating individual preferences and capabilities.

Need for Further Research

While the study supports the use of both steps and exercise time for tracking MVPA, it has limitations. The research was observational and based on a single assessment of time and step measurements. The study population was also limited to older women, mostly white and of higher socioeconomic status, who were more active than a national sample. This limited diversity means the findings should be applied cautiously to other populations.

Hamaya acknowledged that while the results are valid for older adults, more research with diverse participants is necessary. Future studies should include randomized controlled trials to explore the relationship between tracking methods and health outcomes more deeply.

Choosing Your Tracking Method

Despite the need for further research, experts agree that any form of physical activity benefits health. Exercise can help manage weight, improve cardiovascular health, and boost mental well-being. “Think of exercise as a daily investment in your health,” Woolridge said.

It’s essential to choose an exercise routine and tracking method that fits your lifestyle. Those who enjoy swimming or cycling, or those with limited mobility, may prefer tracking exercise time. Conversely, individuals who regularly walk or use step-counting devices might find step tracking more suitable.

For step trackers, recommendations vary: younger and middle-aged adults might aim for about 8,000 steps daily, while older adults could benefit from 6,000 to 8,000 steps. Although 10,000 steps daily is a common goal, it’s not an official guideline. Physical activity guidelines suggest 150 minutes of MVPA weekly, roughly 30 minutes of activity five times a week.

For those with mobility issues, starting with lower targets for steps or minutes and gradually increasing as fitness improves is advisable. “Staying active is what matters most, whether you’re counting steps or minutes,” Woolridge advised. “Set realistic goals, start small, and gradually increase your activity to build a sustainable, healthy routine that supports long-term health and well-being.”

In conclusion, both steps and exercise minutes are effective metrics for tracking physical activity. The focus should be on maintaining consistent activity tailored to individual preferences and capabilities to achieve the best health outcomes.

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