Does Movement Or Exercise Matter More?

When I first start working with a new client they tend to highlight how frequently they exercise.

“Last week I worked out for an hour 6 days a week!”

That is awesome! I am generally excited and proud that they worked out that often.

Hell many people struggle with getting in 2-3 workouts in a week.

If they can continue with that level of consistency over the course of months and years they are in the top 1% of people as far as regular exercise is concerned and that is no small accomplishment.

I never once had a client brag to me how many steps they consistently take in a week.

Eventually, I end up asking them, how many steps did they get per day last week?

Most of the time there is a long pause…

I can only imagine what is going through their head…

“I just told this guy I exercised 6 days last week, why does he care how many steps I took?”

After some more poking and prodding we figure out they averaged 4,000 steps a day last week.

When I encounter this situation with a client, they are often surprised that one of the first things I work on with them is getting them to take more steps!


Turns out that your steps, aka movement, can matter more for your overall health than your hour long workout.

Yup! Sitting on your butt all day cannot be erased by smashing yourself in the gym for 30 minutes to an hour. A recent meta-analysis (a study of studies) looked at sedentary behavior and its associations with all cause mortality. The researchers found that sedentary individuals (sitting 10+ hours a day) who exercised between 30-40 minutes had a similar risk of death as those who did not exercise and were moderately sedentary. In other words moving a moderate amount throughout the day was the same as exercising but sitting on your but in terms of your risk of death[1].

What does this study tell us?

What it appears to point to is that if you exercise but sit the rest of the day you are not improving your health that much more than if you were not exercising at all. It also seems to indicate that you can achieve the same improvement in health simply by not sitting.

But wait, there is more concrete research around the impacts of sitting too much and our health!

In another study researchers looked at the potential metabolic impact of exercising after being sedentary for 4 days. In this study there were two control days where participants took about 7000 steps a day. Then on days 1-3 of the 5 day experiment they were instructed to sit for 13 hours a day averaging about 3800 steps a day. On day 4 one group continued the protocol from days 1-3 and the other group did the same but exercised for 1hr at 65% of VO2 Max. On the morning of day 5 all the participants consumed a high fat shake and their metabolic responses were measured.

Conventional wisdom would say that the group that exercised the day before consuming the high fat shake would have a better metabolic response. Unfortunately that was not the case, the metabolic response between the two groups was virtually the same despite one group having performed moderate exercise for an hour!

If an hour of exercise is not enough to improve your metabolic health after being largely sedentary, what amount of movement combined with exercise would show an improved metabolic response?

Researchers performed a follow up study to try and answer this exact question.

In the follow up study researchers used a similar study design. There were two control days in which participants took around 10,000 steps per day. Then on day 1 – 3 of the study the participants were split up into three groups, a low group which took 2675 steps, a limited group which took 4795 steps, and a normal group which took 8481 steps. At the end of day 2 all participants performed an hour of exercise at 64% of VO2 Max. On the morning of day 3 they consumed a high fat shake, just as the previous study did [2].

The results showed that whole body fat oxidation and carbohydrate oxidation was only significantly increased in the group that took 8481 steps, aka the normal group.

The next logical question I have after reviewing this research is what would happen if the participants took the 8000 steps and but did not exercise, would the participants still show an improved metabolic response? The meta-analysis from above[3] would seem to hint that they would, but we can’t say for sure.

What we do know based on these studies is if you want optimal fat and carbohydrate metabolism you need to at least be hitting around 8500 steps per day, if you don’t do that you are not going to be burning as much fat regardless of whether you exercise or not.

This research provides strong support for moving more throughout the day, just as we would have been doing ancestrally. Our bodies crave low level frequent movement, and when we give it that movement we see our health improve across the board.

This is the exact reason why I honestly care more about how consistently clients hit 8000-10,000 steps a day than how consistent they are with exercise. Without the steps that exercise may not be doing much in aiding in improving their health. Not only that, but getting those steps often comes with a number of other benefits like, sunlight which will get you vitamin D and improves your sleep, time out in nature which helps with stress management, improved mobility, and heat or cold exposure improving your resilience. There is no downside to increasing your steps.

Correcting ancestral mismatches like movement is at the core of my health coaching practice, because no matter your goal, fat loss, athletic performance, strength gain, or just improving your overall health will benefit from eliminating these mismatches. If you want to learn more about how to correct these mismatches, fill out the form below to sign up for my newsletter and get weekly emails with information on how exactly to eliminate these mismatches and achieve your goals.

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  1. (n.d.). Joint associations of accelerometer-measured physical activity …. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from

  2. (n.d.). Daily Step Count and Postprandial Fat Metabolism – PubMed. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from

  3. (n.d.). Joint associations of accelerometer-measured physical activity …. Retrieved January 21, 2021, from

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