Intense workouts 'drastically' more effective at improving fitness than walking 10,000 steps a day - study

A person checking their fitness watch
Achieving 10,000 steps a day is not as effective at boosting fitness as intense workouts, research has found. Photo credit: Getty Images

Actively trying to reach 10,000 steps a day - particularly in a largely sedentary job - can prove futile. Although frequent trips to the fridge will boost that daily total, the gold-plated 10,000 step milestone often remains elusive - much like my motivation to actually use my gym membership. 

But new research suggests that intense workouts are "drastically" more effective at boosting fitness than a lofty step count, meaning all that pacing back-and-forth in a bid to boost the daily total (admit it, we've all done it) could be swapped for a shorter but sweat-inducing bout of exercise. 

The new report, compiled by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, US, indicates that milder forms of exercise are far less beneficial than intense workouts - such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or running - when it comes to improving a person's level of fitness. 

Commenting on the findings on Wednesday, ExerciseNZ chief executive Richard Beddie said the report endorses the importance of intensity when exercising and how structured activity is particularly valuable.

"Group activities have previously been shown as a great way to add in more activity and extra intensity," he said.

"Once again, we call on the Government to work with us on this one. The cost of inactivity is paid for by us personally through shorter lives and in a dollar sense through us collectively as taxpayers [with] the higher health costs, which are at more than $1.5 billion a year.

"The new Boston report shows working out with more intensity than walking 10,000 steps over the course of a day drastically improves a person's fitness, compared to milder forms of exercise."

The researchers conducted the largest study to date aimed at understanding the relationship between physical activity and a person's physical fitness. The study of about 2000 participants has been published in the European Heart Journal.

The researchers hope their findings will provide important information that can ultimately be used to improve people's physical fitness and overall health across the life course.

While there is a wealth of evidence supporting the benefits of both physical activity and higher levels of fitness, the actual links between the two are less understood, especially in the general population - as opposed to athletes or individuals with specific medical problems. The study was designed to address this gap, but they were also interested in addressing several specific questions.

The researchers wondered how different intensities of physical activity might lead to improvements in the body's responses during the beginning, middle and peak of exercise. They expected to find that higher amounts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, like exercise, would lead to an improved peak performance.

However, they were surprised to see that higher intensity activity was also more efficient than walking in improving the body's ability to start and sustain lower levels of exertion.

The researchers were also uncertain whether the number of steps per day, or less time spent sedentary, would truly impact peak fitness levels. The findings were consistent across categories of age, sex, and health status, confirming the relevance of maintaining physical activity throughout the day for everyone.

The study also demonstrated that individuals who achieved a higher-than-average number of steps per day, or moderate-vigorous physical activity, had higher-than-average fitness levels - regardless of how much time they spent sedentary.

Beddie said this is particularly relevant given that almost two-thirds of all jobs involve sitting for eight-plus hours a day.

"We need more research into this, and it's valuable to see that we can offset this through activities at other times in the day."

All in all, it appears much of the negative impact a sedentary lifestyle has on one's level of fitness may be offset by partaking in higher-intensity exercise.