counting your steps

Is Counting Your Steps Really The Secret To Hitting Your Fitness Goals?

Why should you start counting your steps? Is it really the secret to hitting your fitness goals?

‘Wearable Fitness devices’ have exploded in popularity in recent years. Aside from the fact that this generation LOVES gadgets, one of the reasons is our step count.

I believe the ability to track our steps has been one of the most important health innovations during the past few decades. Yes, these mightn’t be 100% accurate in terms of calorie burn etc, but when it comes to measuring the amount of activity you have done today vs. yesterday, it is a super tool to have (i.e. it may be ‘wrong’ but it’s the same amount wrong each day so it works!). And what’s more, it’s accessible to almost everyone no matter what level of fitness they are at.

Whether you’re a tech-savvy teenager or middle-aged with the technical know-how of a caveman, it’s relatively easy to keep an eye on your steps.

But what’s the big deal? Why the obsession for step tracking? Is there a benefit?

Eat V Neat

We have two types of physical activity. There’s EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis) and NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).

EAT refers to planned physical exertion such as going for a run, a cycle or going for a walk. You set aside time, you plan it and you do it. In other words you exercise.

NEAT refers to the rest of our physical exertion; the activity we don’t really plan. That includes walking to the shop, fidgeting, doing some gardening, walking to the bus etc.

This is where it gets interesting. NEAT has a bigger impact upon our weight than EAT. Which makes sense. If you were to go to the gym for an hour, that’s one hour out of your day. There are still another 23 hours where our exertion comes from NEAT. That one hour can’t have more of an effect in terms of calorie burn than the other 23, regardless of how tough the session is.

That’s the reason why exercise has a negligible effect on people that wish to lose weight. What you tend to see in research studies is people who take up exercise for the first time increase their amount of EAT but as a consequence decrease the amount of NEAT. In fact, so much so that they end up burning LESS calories than they had been previously.

What this probably looks like from a practical perspective is that the individual takes up exercise, and as a result, starts becoming more inactive outside of that. Rather than walking to the shop now, they think ‘oh sure I went to the gym, I don’t need to walk to the shop’. 

Or perhaps it can be an unconscious decrease in NEAT. Our bodies are smart you know? An example of this can be seen in bodybuilders. When they diet down to single-digit body fat levels, you can almost see how their bodies are responding in terms of NEAT. They fidget less, their movements become slower and they generally tend to limit their amount of movement.

This isn’t conscious, the bodybuilder doesn’t even know they are doing it. The body is desperately trying to hold onto every last bit of energy it has. Your body thinks it is starving, and from an evolutionary perspective, this isn’t good. 

But we’re not Neolithic people that go long stretches without food. We have an abundance of food whenever we want. Your body doesn’t take that into account.

Your metabolism isn’t slow or damaged

You ever hear someone say they have a slow metabolism? That their friend can eat what they want and not put on weight, yet when they ‘even look at a cake’ they put on a few pounds.

Well NEAT could actually be the reason. In studies where people were overfed (above maintenance) by 3,000 calories a day for eight weeks, some people only gained 0.3kg, whilst others gained near a full stone.

Overfed by 3,000 calories a day logically should lead to a gain of around a stone. Why didn’t it in all the subjects?

Differences in metabolism you think? No. The people that gained the least amount of weight unconsciously moved more (through NEAT) and the people that gained the most weight didn’t.

Again this shows that inactivity could be a contributing factor to gaining and ultimately difficulty in losing weight.

Counting your steps

Counting our steps can be a method for countering this. By all means exercise (there are wide-ranging benefits), but also keep an eye on your general physical activity. 

If you were consistently doing 10,000 steps before you started to exercise but that has now dropped below 8,000, you are going to have to figure out a way to increase that. That may just involve a light walk on your lunch break, some cardio at the end of your weights session or some extra gardening at the weekend.

If you are in a sedentary occupation then you really should be taking NEAT seriously. It’s common to see office workers do a measly 2000 steps in a day. This simply isn’t enough, if weight loss is your goal.

Although not accurate to a tee, fitness trackers go a long way to help us determine our general activity. I suggest you get one.

Exercise, track your steps and watch your food choices. Simple, but that is a good plan to follow if you want to lose weight.

James Mc Dowell is a personal trainer that helps women to look and feel better so they become strong and confident. He does this through his in person and online programs. You can find out more at jamesmcdowell.ie

Read more: 5 exercises for your legs and bum