Below we’ll explain why step counting is not a reliable measure of your activity level, and why our strain metric is much more useful for understanding and improving your overall health and fitness.
Simply put, no, it doesn’t. Counting the number of steps you take ignores two very important elements of exercise: Intensity and other movements.
On the most basic level, the goal of exercise is to get your heart pumping. The act of physically taking steps may or may not do that for you, and all steps are not created equal. Taking 10,000 steps while jogging is obviously better exercise than 10,000 steps while walking. And more specifically, a brisk walk is more beneficial than a slow walk.
Harvard Health suggests you need to walk at a pace of at least 3 miles per hour to count as “moderate-intensity exercise.” A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found 100 steps per minute to be “a reasonable floor value indicative of moderate-intensity walking.”
Exercise does not necessarily have to include repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other. The American Heart Association recommends that in order to maintain good health adults need a minimum of “150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity.”
There are plenty of ways to make this happen that don’t involve taking many steps. Weightlifting, push ups, pull ups, sit ups, burpees and yoga are just a few examples. Other activities like swimming, cycling, rock climbing, and even manual labor, have significantly greater cardiovascular impact than the steps they require due to additional motion and effort throughout your body.
While 10,000 steps a day is a commonly accepted target many people strive for, hitting that number doesn’t actually guarantee you’ve taken on a meaningful cardiovascular load. For instance, it’s possible to go for a 5-mile walk and keep your heart rate relatively low the entire time, without it even rising too far above your resting heart rate. In fact, there have been countless walk activities logged by WHOOP members in our app that show no significant elevation in heart rate.
As steps don’t give us any insight into your cardiovascular output, we chose another option: Strain. Basically, instead of relying on counting your steps, WHOOP analyzes what your heart rate data is telling us during those steps (or anything else you’re doing).
Our focus is to quantify your cardiovascular exertion throughout the day, and how that can potentially affect your body’s recovery the next day. A major part of this is having an elevated heart rate and using that HR data to determine your strain (for the whole day and for specific activities), which we measure on a 0-21 scale.
Learn More: Podcast No. 26: Understanding Strain
In addition to physical exertion outside of steps, our strain metric also accounts for any other factors that may increase your HR (in turn making your heart work harder), like stress. The common stresses of our daily lives take their toll on our bodies as well.
Some days you are more capable of taking on strain than others. On days when your WHOOP recovery (how prepared your body is to perform, from 0-100%) is low, you will accumulate strain at a faster rate and regular activities can cause more strain than normal. This enables you to adjust your workouts to fall in line with what your body is ready to handle.
Because strain is individualized to you and based on your current level of cardiovascular fitness, as you get in better shape you’ll see it in your numbers. For example, the same 1-hour workout that routinely gave you a strain of 11 or 12 when you first started may soon only hit 10.
Learn More: All Your WHOOP Strain Questions Answered
A popular rationale for counting steps is that it’s a useful motivational tool that provides people with goals to reach. WHOOP strain works in the same way. A strain of 10 is considered a moderate amount of exercise loosely on par with 10,000 steps.
Below is the average length of time it takes WHOOP members to achieve a 10 strain while participating in several of the activities logged most frequently in our app:
The WHOOP Strain Coach also provides you with a suggested goal to meet each day (and for specific workouts) based on your recovery that morning. It shows your strain building in real time as well, so you know exactly when you’ve reached your desired amount.
Another great motivator is the ability to create and join teams in the WHOOP app, which allows you to compare data and compete with others.