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I have a step counter on my phone, my work offers a challenge/incentive to achieve more steps than other coworkers, and the primary function of virtually every fitness tracker is step counting.

I'm skeptical that taking the stairs versus the elevator is going to make much of a difference in my overall health, but there are many fitness programs/systems/plans that claim it can.

Is step counting an effective measure of physical fitness compared to cardio exercise plan (treadmill running, cycling, etc..)?

  • I think you're likely to get varying opinions. As far as "effectiveness", I think it depends on the individual and their current state of fitness. BTW...IMHO, taking the stairs does make enough of a difference. If for anything else, it sets a good habit to follow. – rrirower Feb 25 '16 at 16:34
  • @rrirower By effectiveness, I mean that would the extra time that is takes me to do something like park at the back of the parking lot to get in the steps be worthwhile as opposed to going about my life as efficiently as possible and saving my energy for the gym. – Betsy Dupuis Feb 25 '16 at 16:43
  • Again, if it were me, I'd lean towards walking as much as possible even if it meant being less 'efficient'. It may not seem like worth doing now, but, it can pay dividends in the future. – rrirower Feb 25 '16 at 16:46
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    @itsjustluck: My point is that, if you spend that extra time in the gym, it probably is better for you, more efficient, because you're training in a more intense cardio zone or providing more resistance to build up your muscles. But the fact of the matter is that I think most people aren't going to take that saved five minutes from parking closer to the building and spend it exercising. Most people will spend it checking Facebook again, or spending some time at the water cooler. – Sean Duggan Feb 27 '16 at 3:36
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    Incidentally, it turns out someone asked about this on Skeptics SE in 2013. They have more academic references than me. skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/18872/19346 – Sean Duggan Mar 3 '16 at 19:44
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This is a surprisingly tricky question to answer. What is fairly unambiguous is that, for most people, increasing activity will correlate with better health. As a race, we are becoming more sedentary with longer periods of inactivity due to the large numbers of jobs that involve sitting at a desk combined with recreation such as web browsers and video games that similarly keeps us immobile. This study concluded that "intervention participants can realize modest changes in BMI and blood pressure with increases of physical activity". Now, the question is, are these step goals useful since, as you said, this could be taking time away from more effective activity.

In a study of pedometer tracking software with various forms of reminders, "participants found it beneficial to have secondary and primary weekly goals and to receive non-judgmental reminders." According to one summary I found, the reminders needed to be geared toward the participant's goals and did better when they provided specific goals such as getting 2000 more steps in rather than general "you should exercise more" reminders. On the other hand, other features, such as the provision of the number of calories burned, indicating "how much you can eat" have been correlated with weight gain. This is actually in agreement with general philosophies on exercise where it's been shown that people take the provided measures of calories burned as "free calories" and will consistently eat more than they burned as a method of rewarding themselves. So basically, the trackers seem to be providing benefits in terms of convincing people to be active more consistently throughout the day, but as with any form of exercise, you'll need to control your diet and not treat those calories burned as "free".

Lastly, as per my comment, yes, it's more efficient to do more intense exercise. Raising your heart-rate into a higher zone will improve your cardiovascular health. Doing resistance training will improve your strength. Doing activities at a higher intensity is more efficient because you're fitting the same amount of burned calories into a shorter amount of your time and you're challenging your body to get even better. That said, there's a reason why most people agree that exercising at least three times a week is a good idea but so few people do it. Most people are averse to extra pain and stress in their life, and face it, exercise programs generally involve pain and stress if done right. Yes, if you save five minutes of time by parking closer to work and you use those five minutes to exercise five minutes longer in a cardio or strength workout, it's going to be more effective in the end. But how many people will use those five minutes productively versus the number of people who'll use it to check their Facebook feed, to spend a bit more time at the water cooler, or to run one more check on their code? Providing feedback, and goals, for constant activity seems to just work in terms of getting those people more active, if not necessarily lighter.

So, in short, I think you're looking at two different axes. Counting steps is meant to promote an overall activity level through the day. Strength and cardio training is meant to promote more strength and endurance. Both contribute to your health, but in different ways.

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