When I talk about weight training, cardio, and physical activity of any kind, I usually do it from the perspective of losing fat and building muscle.
Today, however, I’m going to do it from the perspective of overall health.
Specifically, I’m going to tell you how many steps to take per day and how much cardio to do per week if you want to optimize your health and maximize the benefits exercise provides.
That means I’m going to break up my recommendations into two categories:
- Daily steps.
This is the total number of steps you take over the course of the day, regardless of the purpose or intensity of those steps. It would include everything from high intensity running to casually walking from your kitchen to the bathroom, and everything in between.
- “True cardio.”
This is more in line with what most people consider “cardio” to be, in that you’re putting some degree of stress on the body, getting your heart rate up, and the intensity is higher than something like a casual walk.
Let’s start with daily steps…
How Many Steps Per Day
We have enough research on steps at this point to notice certain trends (sources here, here, here, and here).
For example, while “10,000 steps a day” is the magical number we hear all the time, studies show there are plenty of benefits at much lower amounts. Simply getting more steps than you currently are is beneficial, even if that still ends up being far below 10,000.
And while higher step counts are indeed associated with more benefits, there is a point when things start to level off and the improvements become much less significant.
So, with that in mind, how many steps should you aim for? Here’s what I recommend…
Recommended Steps Per Day
- 7,000 steps per day would be a solid minimum to aim for.
- 8,000 – 10,000 steps per day is likely the ideal range for maximizing health benefits.
What does this mean exactly?
If you’re currently averaging 8,000 – 10,000 steps per day, congrats! You’re in the ideal range, and you probably don’t need to try to get any more than that (unless you have specific needs or preferences for doing so). Keep up the excellent work!
If you’re currently averaging 7,000 – 8,000 steps per day, congrats! You’re hitting the ideal minimum number of steps, which is great. Keep it up, and maybe see if you can work your way into that 8,000 – 10,000 range.
If you’re currently getting a lot less than 7,000 steps per day, you should focus on just getting more steps than you currently are, as studies show that increasing your step count by as little as 1,000 provides health benefits. Then, try to gradually work up to 7,000 by progressing in 500-step increments over time (i.e. get 4,500 for a few weeks, then 5,000 for a few weeks, then 5,500 for a few weeks, etc.).
If you’re getting more than 10,000 steps per day, congrats! That’s a lot of steps, and if you’re able to sustain that without any problems, awesome! I don’t think it’s something people need to strive for, though. Research shows the health benefits start leveling off quite a bit at this point, so unless you naturally get this many steps or have specific needs or preferences that warrant it, I think 8,000 – 10,000 steps is perfect for most people.
How Much Cardio Per Week
Now let’s talk about “true cardio.” How much should you do per week for overall health?
Recommended Cardio Per Week
For the average healthy person, I recommend a total of 90 – 180 minutes of moderate intensity cardio per week.
I bet you have some follow-up questions about that.
Let’s answer them now…
What Does “A Total Of 90 – 180 Minutes” Mean?
It means that’s the total amount to aim for per week, and you can make it happen with as many cardio sessions as you’d like.
For example, you could do 2-3 sessions per week that are 60 minutes each. Or 2-4 sessions that are 45 minutes each. Or 3-6 sessions that are 30 minutes each. Or 1 session that’s 60-minutes and then 1-3 sessions that are 30-minutes. Or anything similar.
What Do You Mean By “Moderate Intensity” Cardio?
The most accurate way to describe it would be Zone 2.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I say Zone 2 (a good subject for a future article, perhaps?), think of it as being more than a light walk, but still less than a run that feels hard and/or uncomfortable.
Depending on your current fitness level, it’s an intensity that’s usually somewhere in the realm of either a very brisk walk or an easy run… or the equivalent of this on a bike, elliptical, or whatever other activity you may be doing.
How Do You Know For Sure If You’re In Zone 2?
There’s a few different methods for figuring this out, but the simplest (and surprisingly accurate) way is something called the “talk test.”
In Zone 2, you’d be able to maintain a conversation with someone throughout the session without struggling much, but there’d still be enough strain for the other person to notice that you were obviously exercising.
So, you’re not working so hard that you can’t speak in full sentences (this would mean you’re higher than Zone 2), but it’s also not as easy as it would be if you were talking to someone while casually walking (this would be more like Zone 1).
It’s somewhere in between.
What About Higher Intensity Cardio?
For health purposes, I don’t think it’s needed.
That’s definitely not to say that high intensity cardio isn’t beneficial for health, or is “bad,” or is something you need to avoid.
Rather, Zone 2 appears to be the sweet spot when it comes to maximizing the health benefits of cardio while also minimizing the potential downsides (e.g. recovery issues, overuse injuries, etc.), so high intensity work simply isn’t something I’d consider necessary for this purpose.
Do Steps Taken During Cardio Count Towards My Daily Steps?
That’s something people sometimes ask me. Do these steps count? Do my treadmill steps count? Do the steps I take just walking around my house count? Do my running steps count?
Yes, ALL of the steps you take per day count toward your total daily steps.
Not all steps are equal, though. The steps you take while running have different effects on your body/health than the steps you take walking to the bathroom.
That’s why we’re setting two different goals here: one for how many steps to take per day, and one for how much true cardio to do per week, as both are important for your overall health in different ways.
What If I’m Not Even Close To Reaching These Recommendations? Should I Even Bother Doing Any?
Here’s something to remember when it comes to doing cardio for health benefits: it’s ALL beneficial.
Cardio isn’t an “all or nothing” thing, where it’s useless unless you’re doing exactly the right amount.
Cardio is a “some is better than none” type of thing, where even if you’re doing a lot less than what’s considered ideal, you are still getting significant benefits.
This is extra important to remember if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been weight training for years but haven’t really paid much attention to cardio.
You might think “Ummm, I barely have time for my 4 weight training workouts… I’ll be lucky if I can do 30 minutes of cardio twice a week or average 6,000 steps a day.”
Cool. Then do exactly that.
It’s going to be beneficial even if it’s below what I recommended.
Just like anything else, the key is to start out as low as you need to, and then gradually progress over time. No matter how small you’re starting, the benefits will be present from the very beginning and only increase from there.
Cardio For Health vs Cardio For Weight Loss
Here’s something else you might be wondering about.
Does doing cardio for health also work for weight loss… even if that wasn’t the reason for doing it?
The answer is yes.
All physical activity burns calories, whether it’s walking to the bathroom, running on a treadmill, weight training, or whatever else.
Which means all physical activity is potentially helping with weight loss, whether we did it for that purpose or not.
However, it’s important to distinguish between doing cardio for its health benefits, and doing cardio to burn calories.
The mindset difference matters a lot more than most people realize, as the first (cardio for health benefits) is likely to help you prevent problems, and the second (cardio for burning calories) is something that frequently causes problems.
That’s why I suggest approaching things the way we do it in my Superior Fat Loss program, which is this…
- Use your diet to create your deficit and cause fat loss (if fat loss happens to be your goal).
- Use weight training to build muscle or maintain muscle.
- Use cardio primarily for its health benefits.
- Consider the calories burned during health-focused cardio to be a nice bonus that will also help with fat loss and/or preventing fat gain (which, coincidentally, can also be considered a health benefit.)
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