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I am walking for weight loss. Should I track minutes, miles or steps?

If your goal is lose weight, walking for time may prove more successful than distance.

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A walking routine may seem simple: lace up your sneakers and … walk, right?

While yes, getting out there and hitting the pavement is a great way to start making strides toward your health goals, just like with any form of exercise, having a measurement to track progress is key for continued growth.

Tracking progress is helpful for many reasons. It allows you to set realistic and achievable goals, easily see if your physical fitness is improving, and feel a sense of accomplishment when comparing your day to day, monthly and yearly progress.

Walking has proven health benefits like aiding in weight loss, easing joint pain and improving immune functions.
Walking has proven health benefits like aiding in weight loss, easing joint pain and improving immune functions.SeventyFour / Getty Images/iStockphoto

It also aids in adjusting the plan of action needed to achieve your goals and see results more effectively. Without tracking, there would be no method to tell when to alter a program’s intensity, duration or difficulty to encourage more progress. 

A lack of tracking can lead to a fitness plateau, while tracking can encourage results.

But what exactly should you be tracking when walking is your main form of exercise? Is it best to walk for a certain distance, time or number of steps?

Benefits of tracking minutes walked

Walking has proven health benefits like aiding in weight loss, easing joint pain and improving immune functions. To obtain those incredible health benefits, walking at least 30 minutes at a brisk pace is recommended.

One of the reasons I love tracking walks by time is that you can clearly see your physical fitness improve. If you start at 5 minutes a day, you may find that a week later you get through those 5 minutes with more ease, you walk further during those 5 minutes, and you may even feel physically ready to walk for a longer timeframe! Then you can up it to 10 minutes a day, and slowly build from there. While you are focused on the time spent walking, you will also be increasing your speed, distance and number of steps as byproduct.  

If walking 30 minutes straight proves to be challenging, begin with ten-minute increments, three times a day. Or start with just 10-15 minutes a day, and slowly increase your walking time from there until you reach 30 minutes (or more!).

Benefits of tracking steps while walking

Many personal trainers give their clients a goal of hitting 10,000 steps a day. This popular daily step goal can build accountability and it allows for the work to be done throughout the day, versus requiring a chunk of time spent exercising.

Studies have suggested that tracking your steps leads to a more active lifestyle that decreases the development of certain health issues. Hitting a step goal creates a sense of accomplishment. It also serves as a motivator to move more throughout the day because since every step you take counts. For those who have a competitive streak, having that set number in mind can be a very effective motivation tactic. One of the members of our Start TODAY walking club even walked up and down her 10-foot hallway to get in the rest of her steps before bed!

However, it’s important to note that daily steps are not a one-size-fits-all approach. Studies have even shown that it's possible to reap the benefits of walking with less steps than the standard 10,000 a day. You should start with a step goal that is achievable for you and make sure to reassess your goal every so often, especially if you constantly feel discouraged coming up short. One of my clients had her goal set to 10,000 steps a day, but consistently fell short at 8,000 steps. I advised her to reduce her goal to 7,500 so that she felt successful at the end of the day, rather than going to bed feeling defeated. Once she did this for two weeks, she consistently exceeded the 7,500 steps and regularly hit 10,000 steps!

Benefits of tracking miles walked

For those who don’t have a step tracker or who like to have a set distance to aim for, tracking miles can be an excellent method of getting your steps in.

A five-mile walk equates to about 10,000 steps, which is a great goal for those looking to establish an active, healthy lifestyle. But that is simply a goal; any amount of walking is better than nothing!

It can also provide a nice way to unplug from your phone and trackers while walking. If you know that one loop around the block equals one mile, then five rounds around the block equate to five miles and about 10,000 steps. No matter how long it takes you (some days you may be slower or faster than others) or how many steps you take (some days you may take longer strides than others), you know without a doubt that you walked a specific distance, which can feel very gratifying.

Again, it's important to reassess your distance goal regularly and adjust it to keep seeing progress. When beginning your walking journey, start with one mile or even half a mile. If that’s challenging enough, stick to this distance for a week or two. Then, increase your mileage goal by another half of a mile. Over time, you should notice the distance become easier to complete, and see your distance walked steadily increase.

Which tracking method is best when walking for weight loss?

In my professional experience, walking for a set number of minutes each day proves most beneficial when weight loss is your goal. This is for two reasons. First, you are sure to set aside a dedicated amount of time to walk for exercise, versus accumulating steps throughout the day as you go about your daily life. This can also have mental health benefits as you will have dedicated time each day to de-stress and focus solely on walking. And our mental health plays a huge role in weight-loss success. Second, by walking for a set time you are easily able to track progress and push yourself further as you get more fit, versus limiting yourself to a certain number of steps or miles. 

While getting in steps is hugely helpful for overall health, tracking steps you take throughout the day, like walking to the restroom, walking to the fridge, walking to and from your car in the grocery store parking lot, etc. can sometimes provide a false sense of activity. Moving throughout the day is great, but it's important to set aside time for cardiovascular exercise that gets your heart up. I have seen step goals discourage this by having people believe they don't need to exercise since they are hitting a certain number of steps during the day. And while tracking miles is exciting and can give you a clearcut route to walk, if you don’t have the time or energy to hit that distance goal, it can be easier to make excuses to skip your walk.

Therefore, tracking minutes is what I recommend to my weight-loss clients. It creates a dedicated time where they focus on exercising, and gives them the ability to tailor their speed and distance based on where they are physically and mentally. A 30-minute walk can look different based on where you're at that day: It can be leisurely and focus on your mental health or it can be packed with intervals that get your heart rate up and burn calories.

However, keep in mind that a successful fitness plan (and the way we track that progress) looks different for everyone! We have many members of our Start TODAY community that are losing weight, boosting energy and feeling better than ever thanks to tracking steps or miles. If you feel motivated by the goal of hitting a certain number of steps each day, then that method may prove best for you! Other people are very motivated by mile challenges or like the simplicity of logging a certain number of miles each day or week. So track in the way that feels best for you and motivates you to keep walking consistently.