Pedometer users walk at least 2 000 more steps each day than non-users. For most healthy adults, 10 000 steps a day is considered a reasonable goal. Picture: Rogan Ward.

Pedometers have ticked off many kilometres since Leonardo da Vinci sketched his version, essentially a pendulum for walkers, in the 15th century.

While step counting will never be a magic fitness pill, experts say this most pedestrian of gadgets can put extra spring in an ambulatory routine.

“Just as a watch can’t make a person be on time, a pedometer can’t make a person active,” said Dr Barbara Bushman, an exercise specialist and personal trainer with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). “But it’s a good tool for promoting physical activity.”

Bushman said research had shown that in various populations, wearing a pedometer helps with weight loss, as well as encouraging focus on physical activity.

A summary of 26 different studies showed that pedometer users walked at least 2 000 more steps each day than non-users, according to the Harvard Health Letter, produced by experts at Harvard Medical School. Also, using a pedometer helped them increase overall physical activity levels by 27 percent.

For most healthy adults, 10 000 steps a day is a reasonable goal, according to ACSM. Bushman recommends pedometers as an adjunct to activity and notes that old-fashioned pedometers can be an inexact measure of exercise volume. Position also matters.

“Tilting, angling, placing it off the body or on a loose waistband can affect accuracy,” she said, noting the devices don’t pick up non-ambulatory activities, such as stationary cycling or rowing.

To test the accuracy of a pedometer, Bushman suggests counting out 20 paces. If the counter reads within 18 to 22, it’s considered to be reasonably accurate.

Gregory Chertok, a sport psychology counsellor and fitness trainer at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Centre in Englewood, New Jersey, said studies showed that just wearing a pedometer could increase fitness awareness.

“A pedometer is almost like a workout buddy, an ever-present truth teller,” he said. “It provides constant, immediate feedback, and so acts as a behaviour modification tool.”

There is also the power of numbers. “Most goals people set are measurable, numeric, so just having the number can encourage you to set your own goal.”

Chertok added that pedometers also help people realise that everyday activities, such as walking up stairs or through supermarket aisles, count towards that goal.

Just as working out in groups increases exercise adherence, he suggests, a pedometer can be effective because people know they are being monitored, even if you’re monitoring yourself.

To build a better pedometer, companies are moving from the spring-load, or old-fashioned, to microchip.

Garmin’s 201 model is a wrist unit that uses GPS satellites to trace your outdoor workout. Besides showing speed, distance, pace, time and laps, it can even point you back to your starting place. Using MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) technology, the technology in very small devices, Striiv is among the companies making pedometers that are smarter and contain no moving parts.

“It’s the next generation,” said Dave Wang, chief executive of the Redwood City, California-based company.

The new technology, he maintains, improves stepping accuracy to within one percent of every 100 steps on normal terrain.

The new generation of pedometers can track running, and even climbing, but calories remain the final frontier: “Calories are a little hard,” Wang admits, although his pedometers do take a stab at it. – Reuters