Should You Track Your Exercise in Steps or Minutes?

Should You Track Your Exercise in Steps or Minutes?

Many people use fitness watches to track their workouts and overall fitness—but is it better to measure your movement in steps or overall minutes of exercise? New research may have the answer.

A study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine on May 20, examined which of these two fitness goals is best for maintaining overall health. The researchers found that both measurements are tied to positive health outcomes, such as a lower risk of death and heart disease.

The findings indicate that what’s most important is simply sticking with an exercise routine, rather than tracking movement in one specific way over another, experts said.

The new research also fills in gaps in our current understanding of how to best record and set exercise goals, said Rikuta Hamaya, MD, PhD, lead study author and research fellow in the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Currently, exercise 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 to achieve optimal health benefits.

But this research implies that tracking steps—which has become increasingly popular given the ubiquity of fitness trackers and smartphones—is also a useful metric.

“We recognized a gap in the existing guidelines that focus primarily on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity but lack a clear step-based recommendation,” Hamaya told Health. “Our study aimed to explore whether step counts could be as effective as MVPA time in predicting health outcomes.”

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To compare these two methods of fitness tracking, Hamaya and his team used data from 14,399 people enrolled in the U.S. Women’s Health Study, which was a randomized clinical trial that ran from 1992 to 2004.

The women included in this study were at least 62 years old, and did not have cancer or cardiovascular disease at the start of the study.

Between 2011 and 2015, the participants wore fitness trackers for seven days straight to track their moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. MVPA could include movements such as biking, walking briskly, or playing tennis or basketball. On average, the participants logged 62 minutes of MVPA every week and tracked 5,183 daily steps.

The study cohort was then given annual questionnaires on their health habits, medical history, and other factors for a follow-up period that lasted until the end of 2022.

At the end of the follow-up period, about 9% of the women had passed away, and 4% reported a heart disease diagnosis.

The study found that, regardless of whether it was recorded in steps or minutes, those with higher levels of exercise showed larger reductions in cardiovascular disease risk and mortality risk. Specifically, the participants in the top three physical activity quartiles lived longer than their peers in the group with the least reported activity.

The findings emphasize that exercise goal setting can look different for each person, and still be effective, Tiana Woolridge, MD, MPH, a primary care physician and sports medicine fellow at UCLA Health, told Health.

“The most important thing is to stay active, whether that means tracking steps or counting exercise minutes,” she said.

The study also implies that it may be helpful for health agencies to include step counts as an “alternate metric” in physical activity guidelines, Hamaya added, especially for older adults.

“This could allow for more personalized approaches to meeting physical activity recommendations, accommodating personal preferences and capabilities,” he said.

Though the research results indicate people may be able to use either steps or exercise time when tracking their MVPA, there are a number of limitations to this study.

For one, the study was simply observational, and its results were harnessed from just a single assessment of time and step measurements.

Additionally, the study population was all older women, most of whom were white and more active than a national sample. The cohort was also more likely to have a higher socioeconomic status.

“The limited diversity in the sample means we should be cautious about applying the findings universally,” Woolridge said. “It’s a good reminder that personalizing exercise plans is crucial, considering individual backgrounds and long-term health goals.”

The study’s demographic limitations don’t impact its findings, however, it does mean the research may not be applicable to a broader population, Hamaya explained.

“For such older adults, our study results are valid,” he said. “It needs caution to infer those who were not included in [the Women’s Health Study].”

Looking ahead, more research needs to be done with a more diverse group of participants, Hamaya said. Plus, a randomized controlled trial should be conducted to investigate the cause of the relationship between methods of activity tracking and better health outcomes.

Even though more research on fitness tracking is needed, experts agreed physical activity is always good for your health, no matter how you measure it.

Exercise helps people avoid hypertension and manage weight, can improve cardiovascular health, and can boost mental health and overall wellbeing, said Wooldridge.

“These benefits collectively reduce the risk of heart disease and extend life expectancy,” she said. “Think of exercise as a daily investment in your health.”

What’s most important is that people pick an exercise routine (and tracking method) that’s tailored specifically to their lifestyle.

Someone who loves swimming or cycling—or, someone who has limited mobility and relies on an assistance device like a wheelchair—could find that tracking time is most useful, Woolridge said. On the flip side, a person who likes walking or uses a step-counting device as part of their regular routine “might prefer focusing on steps,” she added.

“People should aim to be active in ways that fit their lifestyle and preferences, whether that’s structured exercise or simply walking more throughout the day,” said Hamaya.

For those who like to track their steps, recommendations vary, he explained. But in general, younger and middle-aged adults may see health benefits from walking about 8,000 steps daily, while older adults could see benefits with 6,000 to 8,000 daily steps. Though it’s not an official guideline, general advice is that people aim to walk about 10,000 steps a day.

Physical activity guidelines, again, are clearly outlined—people should try to get about 150 minutes of MVPA each week, which would be about 30 minutes of activity, five times per week.

Of course, these recommendations may not be possible for every person. Someone with mobility issues, for example, may want to start out with a lower target for steps or minutes, and gradually build to those benchmarks as their fitness levels improve, said Woolridge.

“Staying active is what matters most, whether you’re counting steps or minutes. Choose the method that you find easiest to stick with and make it a regular part of your life,” Woolridge advised. “Set realistic goals, start small, and gradually increase your activity to build a sustainable, healthy routine that supports long-term health and wellbeing.”

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