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How to Use a Step Count to Lose Weight

How to use a step count to lose weight

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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 funny idea. Then one day I put it on and my roommate locked me out of our house so I actually had to wear it in public. 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:

  • Make weight loss overwhelmingly difficult

  • Cause your workouts to become less effective

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

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

(In fact, our free guide name "5 Weight Loss Myths" and 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 (or just look at your average if you already track it). If you typically only hit 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.

You may get all the benefits you’d want hitting an average of 7,500-8,500 steps per day.

This “sweet spot” number is pretty doable for most people (it’s often achieved with a 30ish min. walk), it causes exercise to be more effective, and it makes weight loss easier (partly because it allows you to eat more).

If that’s still not feasible for you, you may see some of those same benefits by bumping up to just 5,000 daily steps. You’ll likely need to go higher than that eventually to really get the results you want, but it’s a good minimum to shoot for in the beginning.

Also, keep in mind, 8,500 steps isn’t a maximum limit.

As you get closer to your weight loss goal, adding 1,000 steps to your average every once in a while may be a useful strategy.

The weight loss benefits will taper off eventually (likely somewhere in the 15k+ range) but, as of right now, there isn’t a known upper limit to your step count as far as how it affects your health (although I think we’ll eventually find that levels off in the 15-20k range, too).

(And since we’re basing all this on science: study 1, study 2, study 3, study 4, study 5.)

If you find your average step count is already around 8k, making a new, higher goal wouldn’t be my first recommendation. Instead, focus on establishing a strength-based exercise routine. It will fill the gaps where “just being active” doesn’t help you reach your weight loss goals.

If You Don’t Want to Track Your Steps

No one HAS to track their steps. It’s a practice I’ve come to adopt (yep, skeptical ol’ me). I know Megan (my wife and the nutrition coach here) has used it as motivation, too, for a long time.

But another way to accomplish the same thing is by simply being active for a certain amount of time each day.

If you wanted to reach that 7,500-8,500 step count range, you could probably do it with a 30ish minute walk on top of your normal daily activity.

If you sit all. day. long…. it may take more like an hour. If that doesn’t seem feasible, start with 20-30 minutes. That’ll likely get you at least to the 5,000 step minimum. You can always build up from there.

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

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

Nothing is more common than a good, old-fashioned walk, but if you aren’t tracking your steps and you want to be more active, it doesn’t matter what you do exactly. Just be intentional about finding ways to move your body when you otherwise wouldn’t (and track the time spent on it instead).

As with all things related to diet and exercise, there isn’t one right way to do it. What’s most important is to find a balance that feels good to you AND helps you reach your goals.

We’d love to help you with that. Apply for our online coaching here.


Less than ~5k steps makes weight loss super difficult and has bad long-term health effects.

~8k steps is where you see the most benefits compared to the amount of work it takes to get there (it’s pretty doable for most people). You’ll continue to see benefits at least until ~15k steps or so, but you’ll likely feel it’s not worth the effort.

Start by just going for a 20-30 minute daily walk (that’s 2-3k extra steps). Work your way up to find a balance that feels good to you AND helps you reach your goals.

We’d love to help you with that. Apply for our online coaching here.


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