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Why Steps Matter: Activity Trackers Part II

Step counts are a useful way to track the most powerful form of activity.

Why Steps Matter: Activity Trackers Part II


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This post summarized:

  • Steps are a common metric used in research. You can compare you steps to research and determine whether you’re stepping enough for any given goal.
  • Steps reinforce movement that isn’t our workout, called NEAT. NEAT is critical for long-term health, recovery, and more.
  • Strain and other made-up activity scores may be able to better capture intensity when getting good data, but they can devalue NEAT.

Now onto the post …

On Monday, we explored WHOOP Strain Counts and similar activity scores. You can read or listen to that post here.

A quick summary of Monday’s post:

  • New wearable fitness tracker companies like WHOOP, Oura, Garmin, and others are using made-up metrics to score your workouts and daily physical effort.
  • These grand metrics are all some degree of wrong because wrist-based heart rate tracking during movement is some degree of wrong.
  • That doesn’t mean these grand metrics are useless, but traditional methods like pen and paper or a clock are more accurate for tracking workouts.

Today’s post will cover:

  • Steps vs. Strain and other made-up activity metrics:

    • Upsides and downsides of steps.

    • Upsides and downsides of Strain, etc.

A word before we start: I think activity trackers are a great thing overall. Especially for building awareness among those new to exercise and health practices. These posts are designed to help people who are deeply interested in health—i.e., 2-Percenters—go beyond marketing and understand the upsides and downsides of different activity trackers. I’m still wrapping my head around these big and complicated topics (everyone is!) and view these posts as conversation starters—not gospel!

Steps Vs. Strain

In short

Steps are a valuable way to track movement that isn’t our dedicated workout.

The details

This series on wearables started after I Tweeted about the value of measuring steps instead of made-up metrics like Strain.

As a reminder, WHOOP doesn’t count steps and relies entirely on Strain.

After that Tweet, a WHOOP rep contacted me and asked me to speak to Kristen Holmes, the company’s Principal Scientist.

WHOOP primarily wanted to talk about why they don’t count steps and instead use “Strain.”

I really enjoyed my conversation with Kristen. She pointed out, “not all steps are created equal. It’s really hard to understand your overall health when you don’t understand how hard your heart is working.”

For example, 100 steps on a leisurely stroll are different than 100 “steps” while sprinting. They impact your heart and entire body differently.

This is spot on. But I think steps still have value.

The upsides and downsides of steps

In short

Steps are a common metric used in research. They can reinforce movement that isn’t our workout—which can be the most powerful movement we do.

The details

Scientists have used steps as a proxy for general activity since we invented pedometers. They’re part of public-health research.

Strain and similar metrics, on the other hand, are made up. The algorithms calculating them are proprietary, meaning companies keep them secret.

Hence, giant population studies can’t tell us much about ideal day Strain, and scientists don’t use Strain in public health research.

Other trackers also have made-up metrics, like Strain. For example, Oura uses daily Active Calorie Burn. Like Strain, Active Calorie Burn changes daily based on your recovery and scores the totality of your movement and workouts.

But WHOOP is the only tracker that, to my knowledge, doesn’t measure steps and instead uses only a made-up score to measure exercise and everyday movement.

The Science of NEAT

I think steps are useful for tracking all the movement that isn’t our workout.

Scientists have a term for this type of movement. They call it “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis,” or NEAT. Scientists define NEAT like this:

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to that portion of daily energy expenditure resulting from spontaneous physical activity that is not specially the result of voluntary exercise.

It’s taking the stairs, walking to the mailbox, taking a work call while walking, fidgeting, etc.

We often shrug off this activity. But it’s gasoline for health and wellbeing. For example:

  • Scientists at the Mayo Clinic found that people can burn an extra 800 calories a day due to NEAT. That’s roughly equivalent to an eight-mile run.
  • Researchers in Finland discovered that people who exercised for 30 minutes a day but spent the rest of the day relatively inactive had elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and body fat compared to people who didn’t exercise but moved more throughout the day. The healthiest group in the study were those who had the most NEAT.
  • A Harvard study tracked 1,500 women for 30 years. They discovered that NEAT provided the biggest protection from heart disease. The women who got the most NEAT had the healthiest hearts—NEAT beat planned sports and workouts.

NEAT burns more calories than exercise for most people. Here’s how calorie burn shakes out across a day:

BMR = basal metabolic rate; NEAT = non-exercise activity thermogenesis; TEF = thermic effect of food; EAT = exercise activity thermogenesis. REE = resting energy expenditure; NREE = non-resting energy expenditure

Enter steps. Steps are a straightforward way to measure NEAT.

Tracking them becomes especially important as you lose weight or exercise more.

(To be clear: Strain also captures NEAT, but it gets bundled in with your workouts and life stress into one number. This can be confusing and lead people to game the system. More on that below.)

Steps for continued weight loss

A couple of the smartest nutritionists I know, including Dr. Kashey, ask their weight loss clients to hit 10,000 steps a day in addition to their workout. The point is to help them get enough NEAT. Here’s why: