You can track your steps on your phone. On a wearable. Even on an old-school pedometer. But how many steps does it really take to help you lose weight?
It would be great if there were a set number. Then you could just figure out your plan of execution and your route and go out and drop pounds. The truth is that when it comes to walking off weight, the equation is complicated. How much weight your steps peel off you depends on so many things, including where and how you walk, what you eat, and what you weigh right now.
That doesn’t mean you have to throw up your hands and sit back down. Here’s what to know about steps and weight loss.
There’s nothing magic about 10,000 steps a day
The idea that you should take 10,000 steps a day is believed to have come from a Japanese company’s pedometer, which was called a 10,000-steps meter. It stuck, and everyone now thinks that this many steps a day is ideal for your health. It’s true that more movement is generally better for your health (there are health and longevity benefits to not being sedentary), but 10,000 is a fairly arbitrary number.
You might want to get at least 5,000 steps, though
One small study from the University of Texas found that when active people took 5,000 or fewer steps in a day, they were less able to metabolize fat in an artery-healthy way the next day.
Exercisers do tend to eat more, but there’s a way around that
Researchers from the University of Kentucky did a study that validated the idea that when people burn calories with exercise, their bodies want those calories back. In fact, they saw, people ate about 1,000 extra calories a week.
In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2020, they looked a little more deeply into the issue. People who exercised enough to burn about 1,500 calories a week ate about 1,000 extra calories. But people who exercised enough to burn 3,000 calories a week also ate about 1,000 extra calories. That left them in a 2,000-calorie deficit, and the people who exercised more also lost an average of about 4 pounds of body fat over the 12 weeks of the study, while those exercising less dropped an average of 1.4 pounds.
They didn’t look at steps per se, but another way to think about it is in terms of minutes: The 3,000-calorie group did about 40 to 60 minutes of exercise six times a week; the 1,500-calorie group did about 90 minutes twice a week. You can probably find a way to use your tracker to deduce your step count from your exercise time.
“We always compensate a little bit when exercising—we eat more, expend less metabolic energy—so to really lose weight, you’ll need to out-exercise this compensatory response, which is about 1,000 calories a week,” says lead author Kyle Flack, Ph.D., R.D. “So if we exercise to only burn an extra 1,000 calories, we won’t lose any weight because of this compensatory response. By burning 3,000 calories per week and compensating for 1,000, you’ll be in a 2,000-calorie energy deficit. After about three months, this results in real weight loss.”
Beyond calorie burning, Flack and the other researchers noticed something else in those who had exercised longer: The satiety hormone leptin went up. Exercise may somehow make people more sensitive to leptin, Flack says. Although it has yet to be determined what happens to that hormone and the compensatory response with more exercise.
Overall, steps are great for your health. If you’re looking for significant weight loss in addition to health benefits, Flack says, it’s also smart to pair a healthy diet with increased step counts.
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