Young woman jogging and looking at smart wristwatch

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BOSTON — What’s the best way to keep track of your fitness goals? You’ve likely heard that you should aim for 10,000 steps a day for better health. But is that target really necessary, or is clocking a certain amount of weekly exercise time just as good? A new study suggests both approaches to tracking physical activity are equally beneficial for reducing your risk of early death and heart disease.

The findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, reveal that step counts and time spent exercising are essentially interchangeable when it comes to longevity. So, forget obsessing over an arbitrary number like 10,000 steps. Just focus on moving more in whatever way works best for your lifestyle and abilities.

“Movement looks different for everyone, and nearly all forms of movement are beneficial to our health,” says Dr. Rikuta Hamaya, the study’s lead author from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in a media release. “That’s why it’s important for physical activity guidelines to offer multiple ways to reach goals.”

For the study, researchers tracked the physical activity levels of over 14,000 older women using wearable devices like Fitbits. Over nine years of follow-up, those who were more active based on either steps taken or minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise had significantly lower risks of dying or developing cardiovascular disease compared to their physically inactive counterparts.

On average, the most active 25 percent of women in this study lived over two months longer than the least active group during the study period. But here’s the fascinating twist – it didn’t matter whether “most active” was defined by step counts or time spent exercising. The longevity benefits were virtually identical with both metrics.

“For some, especially for younger individuals, exercise may involve activities like tennis, soccer, walking, or jogging, all of which can be easily tracked with steps,” Hamaya explains. “However, for others, it may consist of bike rides or swimming, where monitoring the duration of exercise is simpler.”

Someone using a fitness app
A new study suggests both approaches to tracking physical activity are equally beneficial for reducing your risk of early death and heart disease. (Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pixels)

So what do the findings mean for the average person just trying to stay fit and healthy? It means you have options. If keeping tabs on your step count by wearing a fitness tracker motivates you, great! Aim for 7,000 to 8,000 steps per day, which the research showed correlated with better health outcomes.

But if you prefer just making sure you squeeze in the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (like running) each week as per current guidelines, that works too. The study found both the step-based and time-based targets offered an equal survival advantage.

Of course, the study isn’t saying steps or exercise minutes don’t matter at all. It’s still true that more physical activity equates to greater longevity benefits. The takeaway is that you don’t have to fret about choosing the “right” metric to track.

For example, a sedentary 50-year-old trying to get more active could pick a step target of 7,000 per day. Or, they could aim for 150 minutes per week of brisk walking or other moderate exercise. Both approaches, if achieved consistently, should confer similar mortality and disease-protection benefits based on the study’s findings.

Ultimately, the researchers say the important thing is finding an approach to physical activity that fits your abilities and lifestyle — and then sticking to it. Guidelines emphasizing just steps or just exercise time may overlook personal preferences and limitations.

“The next federal physical activity guidelines are planned for 2028,” says Lee. “Our findings further establish the importance of adding step-based targets, in order to accommodate flexibility of goals that work for individuals with differing preferences, abilities and lifestyles.”

So, feel free to track whatever metric motivates you most, whether that’s aiming for 10,000 daily steps or squeezing in 30 minutes of yoga each morning. As long as you’re making regular movement a priority, you’re on the right track for better health and longevity.

StudyFinds Editor Chris Melore contributed to this report.

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