For years, scientists have touted 10,000 as the ideal quantity of daily steps you need to stay fit. But reaching that almost mythical number—which amounts to about five miles for most adults—can seem out of reach amid work, commutes, school, and life in general.
Studies have shown that having a digital buddy can get you motivated and moving, and pedometers remain the gold standard for the job. Using these tiny devices can significantly increase physical activity and decrease body mass index and blood pressure. The longer you use a pedometer for walking, one University of Michigan study showed, the more likely you are to lose weight.
Finding the right pedometer to monitor your progress can be daunting. Pedometers these days measure everything from the steps you take to the fat you burn, and even how long you sleep. They can contain GPS systems and sync wirelessly with mobile phones and laptops. One Redwood City (CA) company even designed a pedometer that rewards your progress by donating to your favorite charity.
But it’s important not to lose sight of your overall fitness goals amid all the extra features, says Scott Crouter, an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Crouter, whose research focuses on measuring physical activity and energy expenditure using pedometers and other health monitors, says you can judge a good pedometer by its most basic function.
“Everything is based on the number of steps taken, so it’s important to keep that in mind,” Crouter says. “Don’t get caught up in features like energy expenditure because they don’t tend to be as accurate.”
So how do you sort through the pedometer pickings to suit your fitness goals and your budget? Fortunately, pedometers can be sorted into two categories: mechanical pedometers that measure the up-and-down motion of your steps using a spring-lever mechanism, and accelerometers that measure your steps and the intensity of your activity, among other features.
These traditional pedometers, which are worn at the waist, count steps when a tiny horizontal bar attached to a spring moves up and down. Among the most economical pedometers on the market, they also have long battery life.
But a 2005 study led by Crouter showed that they’re not as accurate in people who are overweight or obese. A protruding belly can tilt the device forward, resulting in miscounted steps. Mechanical pedometers also aren’t ideal for slow walkers who take more than 24 minutes to cover a mile, since there might not be enough vertical movement to register steps accurately. Still, for walkers of a normal weight and gait who want to simply count steps, mechanical pedometers like the Yamax Digi-Walker SW-200 work well, says David Bassett, professor of exercise science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In a 2004 study, Bassett and Crouter found that this model was among the most accurate of 13 pedometers they tested—a finding that still holds up today. “I still like the spring-lever pedometer ... I’ve used it a long time, and it’s less than 20 bucks,” Bassett says. Other comparable models include the Accusplit Eagle AE120XL and those sold under the New Lifestyles label.
By far, the most popular pedometers on the market are accelerometers, also known as piezoelectric pedometers. These devices count steps when your movement causes a tiny internal weight to bend or compress crystals. This generates voltage proportional to your acceleration, and the voltage oscillations record your steps. Piezoelectric energy is the same technology used in many modern devices, including touch pads and displays on mobile phones. Accelerometers are widely regarded to be the most accurate way to track steps—whether you’re a slow or fast walker—but they’re also pricier than traditional pedometers, depending on their features. They can be worn on the hip, in a shirt pocket or a bag, and they track your steps, distance, calories, and the intensity of your workout. Consumers and experts alike point to Omron pedometers as some of the most reliable accelerometers on the market. A 2009 study showed that the Omron HJ-112 pedometer accurately counted steps in walkers of different weights and gaits.
While accelerometers count steps accurately, Crouter says they’re not as reliable in calculating calories and intensity. “Those estimates of energy expenditure are rough,” he says. “You shouldn’t look at it as 'I burned 2,000 calories today,’ but more as 'How does it compare to what I did yesterday?’” Crouter, who is a lifelong runner, says he now uses accelerometers mainly in his research, but he would use the New Lifestyles NL-1000 for tracking his steps.
For those walkers who want a little fashion with their fitness, Fitbit pocket pedometers also rate highly with experts. At around $100, these sleek, colorful gadgets can sync wirelessly with a base and your computer. Like other new fitness trackers that have come to the market recently, including the Nike+ FuelBand and the UP band by Jawbone, the Fitbit wirelessly tracks your movement, distance, energy consumption, sleep, and other daily activities.
The upside of these fun gadgets, experts say, is that they keep you constantly aware of how active you are, and they allow you to compare your progress with others. The downside is that they count less strenuous activities like brushing your teeth, washing dishes, and even smoking, toward your fitness goals. Bassett, who tested the Nike+ FuelBand, said the device was “gimmicky” and over-counted the steps he took raking leaves at home. But he said that accelerometers that can create objective fitness records on a web site or a mobile phone are gaining in popularity, especially among companies that want to keep health insurance costs down.
Elizabeth Weinstein is an Alexandria, VA–based freelance journalist.