Her Body: Putting Pedometers to the Test

Both of us were on vacation over the last few weeks, and that inspired us to test out pedometers. In case this word is entirely new to you, a pedometer is basically a little gadget that you attach to your belt or waistband. While you go about your business, the pedometer measures your steps—a silent but reasonably accurate recorder of your daily activity. Travel seemed like a good excuse to try a pedometer because we always feel we move around so much more when we’re away from home. When we return, we're often motivated to increase our normal activity level; but then inertia gets the best of us. So we thought measuring the difference between our activity away and at home might be an extra incentive to move around more in our regular lives.

We were headed to places that pretty much require you to walk a lot: Barbara to London and Pat to Disney World. We wanted to see just how hard it would be to hit the 10,000 steps a day (about five to six miles, depending on the size of your stride) that health experts say are essential to fitness. First step (no pun intended) was buying a pedometer. The array seemed bewildering, from pedometers that only counted steps to ones that recorded the time, calories expended and a few other things. We called Dr. Jon Schriner of the Michigan Center for Athletic Medicine for advice. “I wouldn’t go for all the bells and whistles,” he said. “You want steps and distance.” Schriner feels that once you go beyond these basics, other features are less accurate. He said to make sure the pedometer was vertical when we wore it because the device is spring-loaded and that’s the best position to measure movement.

The average person has a three-foot stride but everyone is slightly different and, as Schriner said, “10,000 little steps are not the same as 10,000 big steps.” You can measure your steps if you want more accuracy and figure out how many would make a mile. You can also gauge the pedometer’s accuracy by setting it at zero, walking 20 steps, and then checking to make sure it has recorded the right amount. To check the distance measurement, you might get in your car and test drive a walk on the speedometer. Compare that to the reading on your pedometer when you do the same thing on foot.

You can buy pedometers at a store that sells exercise equipment, where you can get the benefit of a salesperson’s expertise, or online, where you can match prices. Be wary of supercheap brands; a reliable pedometer should cost between $15 and $25, although some are much more expensive (usually the ones with all the bells and whistles). After some research, Barbara ordered the Yamax Digi-Walker SW-200 online from RYP Sports and set off across the pond. In Disney World, Pat borrowed a friend’s pedometer, the Accusplit Eagle 1020. Some highlights of our walking adventures:

Barbara: “Our first day in London was a Sunday, and my husband and I decided to spend it sauntering around Kensington Gardens, about a 20-minute walk from our hotel. I snapped the pedometer on as soon as I got dressed to capture every last movement, including the two flights of stairs to our hotel room. We walked all around the park, sprawled on the grass reading the papers and then walked back to our hotel. After a short nap, we walked to a restaurant about 10 minutes away. I didn’t think we had done that much—indeed, it felt like a pretty lazy day—but when I finally flipped open the pedometer, I saw that I had walked 22,314 steps. No wonder my feet hurt.”

Pat: “On a beautiful 80-degree June day in Orlando, Fla., I arose at 6:45 a.m. and clipped on my pedometer as I was getting ready for a day of chaperoning eighth-grade Girl Scouts at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. We entered the park as it opened at 9 a.m. Around 3 p.m., a group of us headed back to the hotel for some rest and relaxation at the pool and then went back to the park after dinner, around 7 p.m. We returned to the hotel around midnight. Total steps: 24,509.”

Clearly, vacation was a good workout. That observation was confirmed by Dr. Schriner, who recently returned from a trip to Italy. Despite plenty of pasta, he said, neither he nor his wife gained a pound—largely because they had to walk everywhere.

Now that we knew that we could walk far more than the recommended 10,000 steps, we decided to test out our normal routines. Both of us think of ourselves as active women—working and running our households. Normally, we’re pretty tired at the end of the day. If a vacation day meant more than 20,000 steps each, surely our normal routine would produce at least that—if not more. Barbara lives in New York City and gets around by walking and taking public transportation. Pat lives in Washington, D.C., where she uses the subway, walks and drives.

Barbara: “Back at work, I tested out the pedometer on a typical day. That means walking two blocks to the bus stop, which drops me off about a block from the office. During lunchtime, I generally run errands in the office neighborhood on foot. Our offices also require some walking, especially up and down three flights of stairs several times a day to reach various departments. After work, I do more errands on the way home and then get back on the bus. I kept the pedometer on all evening as I did various chores at home: laundry, folding clothes, making dinner. At the end of the day, I felt sure I would reach at least 10,000. I certainly felt more tired than I had in London. But when I flipped my pedometer open, it showed only a feeble 6,167.”

Pat: “On a typical workday, I got up and made a combination of lunches and breakfasts for my three kids and helped them get out the door (signing permission slips, finding shoes, etc.). After getting dressed myself, I walked to the subway stop near my home (about seven minutes away), took the subway downtown and walked to my office (about another seven minutes). Halfway through my workday, I walked to my lunch appointment and back to the office. After work, I ran a few errands on foot before taking the subway home again. I made dinner and had a quiet evening at home. Total for the day: 13,754.”

Over the next week or so, we continued to test our home routines. Barbara came up with an average of 6,000 to 7,000 steps a day; Pat was generally above 10,000 if she went to the office but only at about 5,000 to 6,000 if she stayed home.

So what did we learn from our experience? We’re not as active as we would like to be, and now we have a way to measure what we’re doing. The pedometers we used were small and innocuous; we could easily wear them with almost anything and no one would notice. So there’s no excuse for not paying attention. We interviewed a few people who’ve used pedometers for longer periods of time and they all said that they’re especially useful for figuring out ways to get more activity into your life. After a while, you get a better sense of just what it means to walk 10,000 steps a day—or, hopefully, more. Some exercise experts, including Dr. Schriner, think 10,000 steps isn’t enough but as he put it, “it would be 10,000 steps in the right direction.”

You can do this as part of your daily activity, as we did, or begin a regular walking program. If you want to try the latter, Dr. Schriner suggests starting on a flat surface, like the local high-school track, and spending a few days getting used to things. When you feel you’ve got the routine down, ratchet up your walking by about 25 percent every other day until you reach at least 45 to 60 minutes of brisk walking a day. If that doesn’t add up to at least 10,000 steps, then you can find ways to increase the amount of walking in your day—like parking farther from the entrance in the mall or using the stairs instead of the escalator.

We hope we’ve inspired you. If so, check out the American College of Sports Medicine web site: www.acsm.org . If you type “pedometer” into the search box, you’ll get information about buying a pedometer and testing for accuracy. Happy walking!