Walking is the simplest form of exercise, and using a
pedometer is a good way to get yourself to do it.
Almost everyone needs to get more exercise, and walking more may
be the easiest way to do it. You don't need lessons. Equipment?
A good pair of shoes is about all that's required. Arthritic
knees and hips certainly make it harder, but not impossible if
you start gradually and wear shoes with plenty of cushioning.
Official exercise guidelines say adults should get two-and-a-half
hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week, and walking at a
pace of 3 mph — a good clip but manageable by most — counts as
But knowing all this doesn't necessarily make us walk more. Some
exercise researchers say we're naturally sedentary creatures,
evolved to be couch potatoes long before there were couches (or
potatoes). Inactivity is often reinforced by living
circumstances. There's been a lot of research lately into the
health effects of "built environments," and studies have shown
that people who live in suburbs and depend on cars to get around
get less exercise than those who live in places with sidewalks
and nearby shops.
Try a pedometer
If you're in a nonwalking inactivity rut, wearing a pedometer
might be one of the least expensive and most effective ways to
climb out of it. Compared with today's smart phones and iPods,
pedometers are humble little devices that count the number of
steps you take. More elaborate models tell the time, calculate
how many calories you've burned (based on your weight), and keep
daily step tallies over an entire week.
Research has shown that pedometers are a good motivational tool,
although maybe not by themselves. Several randomized trials show
that it's the combination of wearing a pedometer and having a
goal that's most effective. A common one is 10,000 steps a day,
which is equivalent to about five miles, depending on the length
of your stride.
The enthusiasm for pedometers has hit a couple of speed bumps
lately. Some studies have shown that less expensive models tend
to undercount steps at a slow walking pace and when they're worn
by heavier people, probably because a bulging waistline tilts
them at an angle that affects the step-counting mechanism inside.
Heavy people would be among the prime beneficiaries of a walking
program, so this is a setback for pedometers and some
well-intentioned walking programs that depend on the low-cost
Have a step-count goal
10,000 steps a day is a good goal.
Walk at a fairly brisk pace of 3 mph to get health
benefits from walking.
You can buy a good pedometer for as little as $25.
The piezoelectric models that "work at any angle"
cost more but may be more accurate and easier to use.
A "delightful and comforting companion"
Some sources trace the history of the pedometer back to sketches
made by Leonardo da Vinci. The Swiss watchmakers who invented the
self-winding watch are credited with coming up with the basic,
motion-sensitive mechanism inside. Pedometers were first used to
promote physical activity on a large-scale basis in the mid-1960s
in Japan. Walking clubs had sprung up in the country, and a
company there began making a pedometer it called
Manpo-kei, which means "10,000 steps meter." So while
the 10,000 step goal is a good one, it was picked partly because
it made for a catchy name.
Pedometers have been the subject of literally hundreds of journal
articles and commentaries. The first one we found was a letter
published in Science in 1912 that took the
Encyclopedia Britannica to task for characterizing the
pedometer as "little better than an ingenious toy" and defended
it as a "delightful and comforting companion to those who know
the joy of seeing the world à pied."
Much of the research has focused on the pedometer as motivator
and, by and large, the findings indicate that it is. In 2007,
Stanford researchers took the bird's-eye view, gathered up 26
different studies and summarized the results in a paper published
in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Their synopsis showed that, at least in studies, pedometer users
walk more than 2,000 additional steps each day than nonusers, and
their overall physical activity levels increase by 27%.
Other research has shown that exercise advice given to patients
by doctors might be more effective if a pedometer were part of
the prescription and that pedometers can be part of a successful
program to encourage low-income mothers to exercise.
Not every study has been quite so positive. A British review of
interventions to promote walking published the same year as the
Stanford review noted that the effect of the pedometer on walking
may wane as time goes on — a problem seen with many exercise
programs. Norwegian investigators reported findings in 2008 that
found no difference in results for people who wore a pedometer,
and those who were instead counseled to increase the amount of
time they walked each day. Their argument: it may not be
pedometers per se that get people walking so much as regular
counseling and having a goal. That's actually quite consistent
with something the Stanford researchers discovered: the three
pedometer studies that did not include a step goal showed no
significant improvement in physical activity.
Few of these studies explored in any depth why pedometers are
good motivators. One hunch: a pedometer puts a number to our
physical activity efforts, and most of us respond to the
concreteness of numbers, especially when it comes to exercise.
Runners count miles, and swimmers, laps — and now walkers, with
the help of pedometers, their steps.
Some experts invoke the self-efficacy theory as an explanation.
In simplified terms, self-efficacy means having confidence that
you can perform a task that's set before you. What we're asked to
do when we wear a pedometer is to take more steps — not a
daunting prospect for the average person. Walking 10,000 steps a
day may seem like a lot but it is within reach given that many of
us already take between 6,000 and 7,000 steps daily.
Put another way, those additional 3,000 to 4,000 steps add up to
about a mile and a half, a distance most of us can cover in about
30 minutes. In busy lives, that's not an inconsiderable amount of
time, but we can find it, especially when you consider the
exercise guidelines that say we can divide up that 30 minutes
into 10-minute chunks and still get health benefits.
Doing the step-by-step math
The average stride is about two-and-a-half feet long,
although it might be a bit shorter for women, on average,
than men because they tend to have shorter legs.
So if you have an average stride and you take
2,000 steps, you will have walked the
equivalent of about a mile (5,000 feet,
compared with 5,280 in a mile).
And if you hit the 10,000 steps-a-day
mark, you will have walked the equivalent of nearly
five miles (25,000 feet, compared with
the 26,400 in five miles).
A reasonable goal for most people is to increase their
average step count each week by 500 per day (a quarter of
a mile) until they can average 10,000 a day with ease.
Bring on the bells and whistles
It's not hard to find a pedometer to buy these days. Any large
sporting goods store sells them, and you can buy them online from
Amazon.com or from several Web sites that specialize in
pedometers. The problem is making a choice: Amazon sells a couple
of dozen different models, and the specialty Web sites have even
Despite all the variation, the internal workings come in just two
basic varieties: those that use a spring-suspended horizontal arm
that moves up and down with the hips, and those that sense
acceleration with a cantilevered mechanism that presses on a
piezoelectric crystal that generates voltage when compressed.
Pedometers with the spring-suspended mechanisms (sometimes called
spring-levered or, not quite accurately, a pendulum mechanism)
need to be kept perpendicular to the ground to count steps
correctly. You can keep them in a hip pocket, but as a practical
matter maintaining the vertical position may mean clipping them
to a waistband or belt. The piezoelectric pedometers can be worn
at any angle.
The spring-suspended pedometers are $10 to $20 less expensive
than the piezoelectric pedometers, but some researchers have
found them to be less accurate, missing steps at slow speeds and
when worn by overweight people, possibly because they weren't
worn in the vertical position. A British group published a report
in 2009 that called a spring-suspended pedometer "unacceptably
inaccurate" for a walking promotion campaign after tests showed
it undercounted steps.
If you're pedometer shopping, you won't see models identified as
being spring-suspended or piezoelectric, even though researchers
talk about them that way. But you can go by price — the
spring-suspended models are almost always cheaper. The
spring-suspended models may also mention the need for
perpendicular positioning. The piezoelectric models are touted as
working at any angle (the "any wear" pedometer).
We tried wearing both types of pedometers. It was a real
advantage of the piezoelectric model that we could throw it into
a pocket and forget about it — except when we wanted to see how
many steps we had taken. It seemed a bit generous: our step count
for the day went up just from some movements we made while
sitting at the computer typing. But researchers have found that
fidgeting can influence body weight, so perhaps we were just
getting credit that we deserve for some chairbound physical
We also tried out an inexpensive spring-suspended model that was
flimsy and miscounted steps right from the start. If you wear it
all day, a pedometer is going to get banged around a little. We
recommend buying one that is sturdy.
Both types of pedometer come in versions that allow you to keep
track of the distance you've traveled (not just steps), the
calories you've burned, and the step counts for several days in a
row. We were ready to dismiss these as needless bells and
whistles, but we ended up liking the extra features. It added to
the fun and interest of step counting.
For these functions to work, you'll need to enter in your weight,
height, and stride length, so be ready with that information
before you start setting up your pedometer. It's easy to
calculate your stride length. Mark out a distance on the floor
(say, 10 feet) and divide by the number of strides it takes to
The set-up is a button-pushing process that's not much more
complicated than setting up a digital alarm clock, but it does
take time and a certain amount of attention, and the controls are
small. It will be easier if you're not rushed and set aside time
well before you head out on your walk.