Wait, what is a pedometer again?

By Elisa Kronish
February 27, 2020
Carlina Teteris/Getty

The first time you kept track of your steps might have been in elementary school, using bare-boned pedometers to learn about the importance of being active. But fitness tracking technology has come a long way since your recess days, and dozens of smart watches, health apps, and activity trackers have been created to help you count your steps. Here's what you need to know about tracking your movement.

Why Should I Care About My Daily Steps, Anyway?

The idea that you have to walk 10,000 steps a day is probably ingrained into your memory, so where exactly did it come from? "The 10,000 steps number was discovered in Japan more than 40 years ago," says Susan Parks, CEO of WalkStyles, Inc., maker of the DashTrak pedometer. American health experts began to adopt the Japanese model of healthy living. (Related: Is Walking 10,000 Steps a Day Really Necessary?)

But reaching this step goal is not necessarily a guideline, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Instead, it's just a way people may choose to meet the key activity level guidelines, which include performing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week. If you're using a step counter to track your progress with the guidelines, the department recommends first setting a time goal (minutes of walking per day), then calculating how many steps are needed to reach that goal.

Still, only 19 percent of American women are meeting the department's physical activity guidelines, and increased daily step counts have been linked to significant health benefits. In a 2019 study of nearly 17,000 older women, researchers found that the participants who averaged 4,400 steps per day had significantly lower mortality rates four years later than those who took 2,700 steps per day (though the effect leveled off at 7,500 steps). What's more, walking at a brisk pace can help lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

How Can You Track Your Steps with Tech?

Pedometers

What is a pedometer?

Ranging from basic and inexpensive to jam-packed with bells and whistles, pedometers all work in a similar fashion by counting the electronic pulses each time you take a step. Upgraded models then multiply those pulses by your pre-programmed stride or step length to calculate the total distance you've walked or run. Here's a time to pull out those instructions that came with your pedometer, because some refer to "stride" and "step" interchangeably, while others distinguish "stride" as the distance between one heel striking once and then again, which would technically be two steps. You just don't want to be short-changing—or cheating—your total distance.

How do you measure your stride?

The key to getting the best results from your new gadget is an accurate step (or stride) length. There are several ways to measure this, but one of the easiest is to make a mark behind your right heel, then walk 10 steps and mark the spot where your right heel ends. Measure that distance and divide by 10. The catch here is that you're starting from a dead stop, which isn't your normal pace. An alternative is to measure a specific distance on the sidewalk, like 20 feet. Start walking before your measured area, so you're up to your typical walking speed by the time you start counting steps. From your "start" line, measure how many steps it takes you to get to the "finish" line. Divide your 20 feet by the number of steps it took you to get there.

Where do you wear a pedometer?

Position your pedometer on your waistband, in line with your right knee, facing straight up and down, not tilted to the side. "It's measuring the kick of your leg and your hip motion," explains Parks. If you're afraid your pedometer will fall off or land in the toilet, put a ribbon through the waist clip and pin it to your pants.

Smartwatches and Activity Trackers

Think of smartwatches and activity trackers as the pedometer's more mature, stylish cousin. These small wearable devices use an accelerometer—a tiny instrument that measures acceleration forces—to assess physical activity, including steps, intensity, calories burned, heart rate, elevation climbed, and other, more detailed information than traditional pedometers. While studies have found that trackers worn on the hip (like the pedometer) are more consistently accurate for step counts than wrist-worn trackers, this tech is still sufficiently precise. Smartphone apps that track your steps make step-counting more accessible and can be as accurate as hip-worn trackers, but they have to be worn in your hip pocket all day to provide an accurate step count. (Here's how you can get the most out of your fitness tracker.)

How to Sneak More Steps Into Your Day

If you're looking to make use of that smartwatch or pedometer and get more steps in, the main thing is not to make it punishment, but just a normal routine, says Parks. "We really try to have people weave it into their lifestyle," she says.

You could try to get 10,000 steps in one, long walk—it would be about 5 miles—but chances are, you don't have that kind of time, at least not every day. "I try to get up and get in a half-hour in the morning, walking around my neighborhood or on the treadmill or, if I'm away, just walking around my hotel room," says Parks. When she gets to the office, she first takes a quick walk around the parking lot, thinking about her day ahead and what she needs to do, so she not only works in more steps but prepares herself mentally for a productive day. By walking at a 15-minute-mile pace for a half-hour, you'll bring in about 4,000 steps. For smaller ways to add more steps to your day, remember these tips:

  • Take the stairs whenever possible.
  • Instead of carrying all the laundry upstairs at once (or the dishes from the table to the kitchen), take several trips.
  • While you wait for a flight at the airport, walk up and down the corridors.
  • When grocery shopping, walk through every aisle.
  • Instead of emailing your co-worker down the hall, walk over to her office.
  • Walk around your house while talking on the phone.
  • Choose a parking spot that's far from the store entrance, or just walk to the store.
  • Treat the dog to a longer walk.
  • Make a walking date with a friend instead of calling them.

If jumping from your sedentary 4,000 steps to 10,000 in one day has you heading back to the couch, feel free to build up to it. Aim for 20 percent more each week until you reach 10,000. Soon enough, you'll be racking up those steps without even thinking.

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