How to Use a Step Count to Lose Weight

10,000 steps per day has been the unofficial “rule” for a long time. The truth is, it’s not based on any kind of science. But it’s catchy, so it stuck.

That’s right.

There’s absolutely no scientific reason to aim for 10,000 steps.

However, that doesn’t mean paying attention to your step count is a bad idea. The real question is whether it’s right for YOU if you want to lose weight. And if so, what should your daily step count goal be?

This time, let’s base it on science.

Are Step Counts Dumb?

My snap judgments aren’t always right.

For instance, I once thought owning a bright red, fish-net muscle tee was a good decision. Then one day I put it on and my roommate locked me out of our house. It didn’t take me long to reconsider my opinion of that fashion choice.

My snap judgement about counting steps was shortsighted as well.

I’m not a fan of arbitrary standards set universally, so the “10,000 steps” rule — which was created strictly because it sounded good in advertising — immediately turned me off to the idea of step counting.

I thought it was dumb.

In my defense, if you talk to anyone who’s put in the work and successfully gotten in shape, none of them will say, “All I did was walk 10,000 steps every day.”

There are certain things you have to do to lose weight. Setting a step goal isn’t one of them.

Like I said, though, my snap judgments aren’t always reliable. Just because tracking your step count isn’t a requirement, that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful.

Should You Have a Step Count Goal?

Keeping track of your step count is only useful if you understand the specific purpose it serves: to encourage more daily activity.

Simply being active isn’t a replacement for exercise — they achieve separate goals. (Read about the difference between exercise and activity here).

At the same time, even if you were to work out an hour a day (which is way more exercise than is necessary), if you spend the rest of the day on your butt, it will:

  • Lead to health complications that exercise alone can’t prevent

  • Cause your workouts to become less effective

  • Make weight loss overwhelmingly difficult

In other words, being more active is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, even without more exercise.

(In fact, our free guide, "5 Myths You Have to Stop Believing to Lose Weight" explains why exercising less can be GOOD for weight loss.)

One of the ways your body attempts to slow down weight loss is by causing you to (subconsciously) decrease your daily activity. You can limit that effect by intentionally increasing your activity with a step count goal.

What Should Your Daily Step Count Goal Be?

The most important part of a step count goal is making sure it’s something you’ll be able to stick with for more than a couple days.

Start out by not changing your routine for a week or two and see what a normal step count range is for you. If your average is around 3,000 steps, setting a goal of 10,000 steps isn’t realistic — and since this isn’t some magic number, there’s no reason to shoot for that anyway.

Most people will likely get all the benefits they’d want hitting an average between 7,500-8,500 steps per day. If that’s still not feasible for you, I suggest aiming for 5,000 on the low end. (And since we’re basing this on science: study 1, study 2, study 3.)

But again, start with what’s realistic. You’re better off slowly raising your goal little by little, until you hit an activity level you’re happy with.

On the flip side, if you find your average step count stays high naturally — let’s say anything even approaching 5 digits per day — making a new, higher goal isn’t worth your time. You’re better off focusing on an exercise program that will fill in the gaps where an active lifestyle doesn’t reach your specific goals.

If You Don’t Want to Use a Step Count

No one HAS to track their steps. There are other ways to accomplish the same goal.

For Megan (my wife and the nutrition coach here at Fitness Porter), she’s found it to be something she enjoys and gives her motivation. If you’re the same way and tracking your steps won’t stress you out, go for it!

Personally, it’s not something I’ve ever used as a long-term strategy. What I do instead is simply go for walks on a regular basis.

Not every day, but almost.

If I’m on my feet all day doing yard work, running errands, or playing with the kids, or even if it’s particularly nasty weather, then I don’t worry about it. But most days it’s pretty easy to get it in, especially because it’s a habit I’ve come to like.

There’s a good chance you can reach that 7,500-8,500 range by doing the same thing. A 30-45 minute walk on top of your normal activity is often all it takes.

Walking isn’t the only way to go about being more active though.

We always recommend some type of “extra activity” for our clients, at least a couple days per week, and they’ve reported all kinds of creative ideas — everything from dance parties, to “lumberjack” (chopping wood), to playing “marching band” with the kids.

But nothing is more common than a good, old-fashioned walk.

There’s not one right way to go about diet or exercise. That’s why a main objective with our online coaching is to come up with a plan that helps you reach your goals, but in a way that is doable for your life.

We’d love to help you with that. Click here to see how our private, online coaching can make weight loss more realistic for you.

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