The fitness industry is full of opinions about the best types of cardio for fat loss.
HIIT? LISS? MISS? Do we even need cardio to get shredded?
Rather than discuss the pros and cons of each type of cardio training, I want to talk about one of the most underrated tools we have for fat loss…
Tracking your daily step count. 🚶♂️
If you’re not already paying attention to your daily steps, you should be, especially if you’re in a fat loss phase. And if you’re currently bulking or maintaining, keeping a high step count is a fantastic way to improve your health.
Here are the two main benefits you’ll enjoy from monitoring your daily step count.
1. A Daily Step Target Helps Avoid Energy Compensation
When we’re in a calorie deficit, our metabolisms gradually adapt and we burn fewer calories each day. This process is normal, unavoidable, and reversible once we’re no longer dieting… but we have an opportunity to minimize this adaptation.
Metabolic adaptation is partially due to hormonal changes, reduced body weight, and something called energy compensation.
When you exercise and burn a lot of calories while in a deficit, your body can compensate and burn fewer calories the rest of the day to make up for it.
For example, if you burn 200 calories from exercise, your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) may only increase by 100-140 calories1.
How does this happen?!
Well, in order to conserve energy, many people subconsciously move less later in the day – that means less fidgeting, standing, pacing around, small activities like that.
While we can’t track every single movement our body makes throughout the day, maintaining a consistent daily step count is an excellent way to avoid energy compensation as much as possible.
Both Andy and I have observed this in many clients over the years. As we progress through a diet and decrease calories, daily step counts often decrease as well (unintentionally), which means the calorie decrease is effectively canceled out.
Further, stuff can happen in your life that dramatically alters your step count (and therefore daily energy expenditure). If you’re not tracking it, you may not realize quite by how much.
Recall what Andy shared in his article, “How To Adjust Calories and Macros as You Diet To Keep Progressing”:
From March to May 2020, you can see a dramatic reduction in my daily step count. Though I labeled it “first lockdown,” technically, there was never a lockdown in Japan, only “strong urges” from the government to stay home as much as possible. I took this to a bit of an extreme, not seeing anyone. I was eating the same but put on a little fat. Realizing how drastically my activity levels had been hit when I opened this app for the first time, I decided to go for more walks in the park.
In January of 2021, a tree rudely jumped out at me while I was snowboarding. I was on crutches for most of that month, which is why my activity levels plummeted.-Andy
That’s why intentionally maintaining a baseline step count every day as your diet progresses is one of the best ways to make sure your body isn’t compensating too much.
And if you hit a plateau and don’t want to decrease your food intake, bumping up your daily step count is a great way to get things moving again.
2. A Daily Step Target Helps Increase Your NEAT
Of all the components that make up our metabolism, or daily energy expenditure, NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is one of the most powerful tools we can control, and has a bigger impact on our TDEE than formal exercise.
As you can see, NEAT makes up about 15% of your metabolism. Tracking your daily step count is one of the best indicators of NEAT, especially if you’re getting those steps spread over the course of the day.
Please note, NEAT refers to non-exercise activity – in other words, getting all of your steps in one long run, and then sitting the rest of the day defeats the purpose. We want to be standing and walking throughout the course of the day, not all at once.
(Some will debate the phrasing, and say that going for a long walk just to get your steps is exercise and technically shouldn’t be called NEAT… frankly, I don’t care. For our purposes, let’s call low-intensity walking throughout the day “NEAT”).
As an added bonus, walking is low-impact and shouldn’t interfere with recovery, which can happen if you add high-intensity cardio to your training plan. If you hate long cardio sessions at the gym, adding more walking to your day is an excellent alternative.
How Many Steps Should We Aim For?
You’ve likely heard that 10,000 steps per day is the gold standard, and this is a fine goal to aim for, but there are no hard rules, and it’s not clear what the “best” number truly is.
One paper showed a linear relationship between more steps and improved health outcomes, with health benefits increasing along with step count all the way up to 17,000 steps2.
Another meta-analysis showed that mortality-related benefits were maximized at 8,000-10,000 steps per day for people under the age of 60, and those over 60 only need 6,000-8,000 steps per day3. That doesn’t mean you can’t go beyond 10,000 steps, but this suggests there may be minimal benefit.
In other words, there’s no definitive “gold standard” for a daily step target, but we can generally assume that the more steps you’re getting every day, the better, especially when it comes to your TDEE.
Personally, I like to aim for a minimum of 10-12k steps per day while in a fat loss phase, and 6-8k steps the rest of the time.
But if you take a look at your phone and see you’re averaging 4,000 steps per day right now, it might not be realistic to shoot for such a high number. Consider 50% higher, 6000-7000 steps.
It’s not a great idea to jump up to 10,000 overnight, so be sure to increase your daily steps slowly, over a period of several weeks.
Once you know your daily average step count, aim to increase your average by 500-1,000 per week until you reach your target.
Strategies to Increase Your Step Count
So you’ve decided to increase your step count – now what?
For those of us who live in the suburbs and have to drive everywhere we go, or sit at work, our daily steps may be alarmingly low without intentional walking.
When I switched from working in a gym to coaching online, my average step count plummeted. Working at a desk can make things difficult. However, with some proper strategies in place, increasing your daily steps is easier than you may think. Here are some great ways to bump up your steps count:
- Park further away when you’re running errands.
- Walk around the gym between sets (leave a towel or water bottle on your equipment so nobody takes it).
- Go for a 15 minute walk around the block after your meals – this may have an added health bonus of improving your blood sugar levels4, which can reduce your risk of developing insulin resistance, diabetes, or cardiovascular issues.
- If possible, walk around while you take your phone calls.
- Make it fun, and pair a long outdoor walk with something you enjoy – a podcast, audiobook, or music you love. You’ll learn to look forward to those walks.
- If you’re not in a rush, take your time and walk the aisles of your grocery store, local mall, or anywhere else you go on a regular basis.
- Offer to take a neighbor’s dog for walks.
- This isn’t for everyone, but many people enjoy using a standing desk and a walking treadmill. You can walk at a slow pace while you work, and many find this improves mental focus and clarity.
Make it fun, enjoyable, and treat it like a game. If you see this as a chore, you’re not going to enjoy your walks, but if you make a game of seeing how many steps you can fit into your day, you may find it quite enjoyable.
Fitness tracking watches or pedometers often have little reminders that encourage you to move around every hour, and some apps encourage you with visual progress throughout the day, like closing your rings on an Apple Watch.
Consider recruiting a friend. Many fitness apps allow you to add your friends and see each other’s activity for some extra accountability.
How To Track Your Steps
Many don’t realize this, but nearly every smartphone comes with a built-in step tracker. There’s no need for an expensive fitness watch to track your steps; if you carry your phone all day, it’s likely been tracking your steps already..
On an iPhone go to the health app and tap the “Summary” tab. If you don’t see steps displayed, click “edit” next to “Favorites,” and you can choose to have your step count displayed right on the summary page.
Here’s what that looks like:
On Android, if Google Fit isn’t already on your phone, install the app from Google Play.
Launch the “Fit” app on your Android phone, and set up Google Fit by following the on-screen cues. You’ll need to grant the app access to your phone’s sensors so that your steps can be monitored.
Once you’re all set up, open the Google Fit app any time to check out your number of steps, estimated calories burned, and other fitness information.
Here’s what that looks like:
You can even download standalone free pedometer apps to easily see your step count at a glance, and track your progress and daily averages over time, if you prefer not to use the Apple Health or Google Fit apps.
If you don’t carry your phone with you at all times, or want something on your wrist, I’d suggest using a cheap pedometer. Small wrist pedometers are discreet, affordable, and as an added bonus, often have fantastic battery life. I use a Fitbit, and the battery lasts 7-10 days between charges.
Don’t Use Wearables To Estimate Calorie Expenditure
A word of caution: Most wrist-based fitness devices do a good job tracking your step count, a pretty good job monitoring your heart rate… and an absolutely shit job at measuring your calorie expenditure.
Completely disregard the calories burned feature on any wearable fitness device. The margin of error could be quite significant, so instead, aim for a consistent step count and use your measured food intake vs. body weight changes to figure out your true daily energy expenditure.
Or even better, use MacroFactor, which calculates your TDEE automatically based on your daily weight and calorie intake averages, showing you the true impact of increasing your daily step count.
If you enjoy the smart watch features or heart rate tracking found on something like an Apple Watch, go for it!
But you’ll still need to disregard the daily calorie expenditure from your watch, and if you’re only looking to track steps, a cheap pedometer will work just as well as an expensive smart watch.
As always, no need to complicate things more than necessary.
Questions? Want to share your own tips for keeping your steps high?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 🙏
- Broskey NT, Martin CK, Burton JH, Church TS, Ravussin E, Redman LM. Effect of Aerobic Exercise-induced Weight Loss on the Components of Daily Energy Expenditure. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2021 Oct 1;53(10):2164-2172. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002689. PMID: 34519717; PMCID: PMC8441008.
- Jayedi A, Gohari A, Shab-Bidar S. Daily Step Count and All-Cause Mortality: A Dose-Response Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Sports Med. 2022 Jan;52(1):89-99. doi: 10.1007/s40279-021-01536-4. Epub 2021 Aug 21. PMID: 34417979.
- Paluch AE, Bajpai S, Bassett DR, Carnethon MR, Ekelund U, Evenson KR, Galuska DA, Jefferis BJ, Kraus WE, Lee IM, Matthews CE, Omura JD, Patel AV, Pieper CF, Rees-Punia E, Dallmeier D, Klenk J, Whincup PH, Dooley EE, Pettee Gabriel K, Palta P, Pompeii LA, Chernofsky A, Larson MG, Vasan RS, Spartano N, Ballin M, Nordström P, Nordström A, Anderssen SA, Hansen BH, Cochrane JA, Dwyer T, Wang J, Ferrucci L, Liu F, Schrack J, Urbanek J, Saint-Maurice PF, Yamamoto N, Yoshitake Y, Newton RL Jr, Yang S, Shiroma EJ, Fulton JE; Steps for Health Collaborative. Daily steps and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis of 15 international cohorts. Lancet Public Health. 2022 Mar;7(3):e219-e228. doi: 10.1016/S2468-2667(21)00302-9. PMID: 35247352; PMCID: PMC9289978.
Buffey, A.J., Herring, M.P., Langley, C.K. et al. The Acute Effects of Interrupting Prolonged Sitting Time in Adults with Standing and Light-Intensity Walking on Biomarkers of Cardiometabolic Health in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med 52, 1765–1787 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01649-4