Should your activity goal for fitness walking be hitting a certain number of steps or walking for a specific amount of time? Is 10,000 steps a better target, or walking for an hour (or more) a day? Both are measures of how active you’re getting, and there are pros and cons of each method. Most health organizations recommend time-based walking goals, but part of the reason for that is that time-based goals are easier to generalize for a variety of people.
Just taking the first step towards getting more active is important, and there’s no specific number that instantly triggers the important health benefits of walking. We’ll take you through why we’re partial to step counting, but why some people will do better focusing on time walked. You’ll also find out what each number may miss as well!
Why are fitness goals important?
Setting fitness goals give you both a target to work towards and a measure of how active you’re getting over time. It’s difficult to build up your endurance and get more fit if you can’t tell if you’ve walked more this month compared to last month. Everyone’s fitness goals are unique, and each person should tailor their specific fitness plan to their objectives and their capabilities.
What are some common fitness recommendations?
Most health organizations, like the American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control, and UK NHS, recommend adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise. That’s around 30 minutes of walking per day, 5 days per week. Most also recommend adding in some strength training exercises – often twice per week. They also note that doubling that walking time (300 minutes per week or 60 minutes per day) can give even more health benefits. Brisk walking is typically considered moderate-intensity exercise, though more intense forms of walking can start to approach vigorous intensity.
You may have noticed that these goals are mostly expressed in walking time and not a particular step count. There are a few reasons why this is so. Moderate intensity is different for different individuals. People who are healthy and fit may be able to walk at a fast pace and get a lot of steps in during a 30-minute walk, while someone who has a health condition or injury may only be able to walk at a very leisurely pace. Even if these two people get a similar number of steps per mile, one is getting more miles than the other.
Using walking time as a recommendation allows one number to apply to a variety of people. One person may walk at a leisurely 2 mph, cover about a mile in that 30 minutes and get a little more than 2,000 steps. Another may walk at a brisk 4 mph and cover twice the distance and twice the steps. Unlike a health organization, however, you know your own fitness level and capabilities, so using step counts can be a more precise way to evaluate your level of activity.
Steps or walking time: which is better?
Why use steps?
A step goal is easy to track, is fairly precise, and partially takes into account the intensity of your walks. When deciding on your specific fitness goals, the less complicated you make them, the better of a chance that you will stick with them.
As long as you have your phone with you (or an activity tracker), you can count your daily steps. While you can also track your active time on apps like Pacer, figuring out how intense your exercise was during that time is more complicated (you can check out our app here if you haven’t already). If you’re walking faster, you’ll get more steps in a given time, which in turn will show up in your step count.
If you are new to walking or someone with health issues that may prevent you from long, high-intensity exercise, setting a total step goal for yourself is a great way to start checking your activity level. While 10,000 steps per day is more of a motivational target than a medical activity recommendation, it’s still a great goal for healthy people to target. Even if you cannot hit this goal from the start, research has also found that even a small increase in the amount of steps that you take per day can make a huge difference in your overall health. Small increases in even light activity can also reduce your risk of death!
Verywellfit.com covered how Catrine Tudor-Locke of the University of Massachusetts has investigated how the impact of the number of walking steps per day compared to the overall health of the individual. She created the following activity categories (for healthy adults), as a good baseline for adults to follow when counting their walking steps.
- <5,000 steps: Sedentary
- 5,000-7,500: Low Activity
- 7,500-10,000: Somewhat Active:
- 10,000-12,500: Active
- 12,500+: Highly Active
We should note that these were for healthy people, so if you have a health issue or you’re new to walking – find the right goal for you!
Why not use steps?
Focusing on a particular step number can be discouraging for some people if they’re not able to hit a high number of steps. If you have a health problem, you may not be able to reach 10,000 steps per day even if you’re putting a lot of work into getting active. You can still set your own, personal step goal and work towards that which is better than comparing yourself to others in different situations.
It’s also possible to get too obsessed with the step number, which can lead you to do things that can be counterproductive. Intense forms of walking, like walking stairs or walking inclines or hills burns more calories, but makes it harder to get the same number of steps in any given time. It wouldn’t be a good idea to give up on intense walking that you like just to boost your step count.
Building up walking habits is also important, and scheduling regular blocks of time to walk is an important way to make walking an automatic habit. If you’re only focusing on steps and not blocking out that walking time, you may find yourself struggling to hit your step goal without realizing why.
Why focus on walking time?
Focusing on walking for a specific amount of time can be great for beginners, as you can walk at your own pace and feel less pressure to hit a number. You might take a 15-minute walk every morning and a 15-minute walk after dinner without putting as much emphasis on how many steps you actually hit. You can still build up your endurance by adding more or longer walks over time.
If you are someone that prefers walking for a certain amount of time, rather than setting a blanket step target, set a goal for yourself to get active for least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. These 30 minutes of walking will leave you with a plethora of health benefits, including reducing your risk of chronic diseases, helping you lose weight, lowering your blood pressure, and reduce your risk of colds as well. The key to obtaining these countless benefits from walking is to make it a regular practice and show up every day for the allotted time.
How to increase your walking intensity
Walking is the ideal workout for most people. What most people fail to realize is that it is not a one size fits all exercise model. The beautiful thing about walking is that you get to decide how hard or how fast you go. You can still get in a great, heart-pumping, cardio session even if you don’t have 30 minutes to walk. Increasing the intensity of your walking will help you burn more calories without counting steps or shooting for a specific amount of walking time. Rather you will be focusing on how hard you push yourself during your walking workout. To increase your walking intensity, try incorporating these suggestions into your next workout.
- Hills: A fantastic way to increase the intensity of your walk is to incorporate hills. Even if you cannot make it to the top of the hill, gradually working your way up will make you stronger, fitter, and leaner in no time.
- Pace: Incorporating a brisk pace at different intervals during your walk will not only increase your heart rate but burn those calories at a faster rate. Incorporating intervals into your walk is as easy as increasing your speed for one minute and slow down for a minute. Try to repeat these intervals as many times as you can for ultimate results.
At the end of the day, whether you prefer a 30-minute stroll, hitting your step count goal, or going for shorter periods at a higher intensity, getting in that walk, will make a definite difference to your mental and physical health.
Even if you can’t meet this specific goal just yet, remember the more you exercise, the easier it will become. Walking is a great workout that can help you achieve this goal. It is ideal for those looking for a low impact workout that can be done almost anywhere and at anytime. It’s not only an excellent exercise for all fitness levels, but it’s also the perfect workout to lose weight and tone your muscles while strengthening your bones and giving your mind that much needed mental break it needs. The great thing about walking is that there are no specific rules to get you to your fitness goals. You get to choose how you want to incorporate walking into your fitness routine. Whether it’s walking for an allotted amount of time or getting in a particular amount of steps. Either way, you will be increasing your heart rate, improving your cardiovascular system, and getting that much needed physical activity, your body requires.
If you haven’t downloaded the Pacer app yet, download Pacer for free (on mobile)! You can also check out our website (mobile or desktop) or follow our blog for more great walking and healthy lifestyle tips.
Set Your Fitness Goals. (2018). American Heart Association.
How Many Pedometer Steps Should You Aim for Each Day? (2019). By Wendy Bumgardner. Medically reviewed by Richard N. Fogoros, MD. VerywellFit.
How many steps/day are enough? for adults. (2011) By Tudor-Locke, C., Craig, C.L., Brown, W.J. et al. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 8, 79 doi:10.1186/1479-5868-8-79.
Objectively Measured Daily Steps and Subsequent Long Term All-Cause Mortality: The Tasped Prospective Cohort Study. (2015). By Dwyer T, Pezic A, Sun C, Cochrane J, Venn A, et al. PLOS ONE 10(11): e0141274.
10 Amazing Health Benefits of Walking 30 Minutes a Day, According to Doctors. (2019). By Meghan Rabbitt. Prevention.
Is Walking 30 Minutes a Day the Magic Amount For Weight Loss? Here’s What 2 Experts Said. (2019). By Maggie Ryan. Popsugar Fitness.
Boost the Intensity of Your Walking Workouts to Get Results. (2019). By Wendy Bumgardner. VerywellFit.