Finding better health one step at a time

Pedometer gives people motivation to get up and get moving

October 27, 2002|By Marian Uhlman | By Marian Uhlman,Knight Ridder / Tribune

While the idea of a step-counting machine is 500 years old, the pedometer is now catching on as a solution to a very modern problem.

It is the simplest of monitors for the simplest of exercises: walking.

As Americans look for easy, cheap and effective ways to fight their sedentary lifestyles, many are strapping these compact digital devices to their belts to motivate them to move more throughout the day. A few extra steps to the corner mailbox, a midmorning stroll around the office, or an evening walk in the neighborhood can be just the tonic against inertia.

Cindy Zimmerman, a West Chester, Pa., homemaker who does not like to exercise, said she had more than tripled her daily walking to 10,000 steps over the last few months by using a pedometer.

"I do feel differently," said Zimmerman, who adds to her tally by climbing more stairs, parking farther from the store and walking more near her home. "I have a little more spring in my steps -- and stamina."

Companies, schools and governments are embracing the notion that small steps can lead to a giant leap in physical activity. General Mills handed out about 3,500 step-counters to employees around the country this spring. Oak Ridge Elementary School in Harleysville, Pa., gave them to 19 second-graders. Colorado plans to challenge all of its residents to step up their walking by adding 2,000 steps a day.

"The whole idea is, if we can get people more active, we can greatly improve health and reduce weight gain," said James Hill, a leader of Colorado's project and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado health sciences center. "It is really easy to get an extra 2,000 steps."

Inactivity is considered a major contributor to the nation's obesity epidemic and is associated with such chronic medical conditions as cardiovascular disease.

About 50 percent of American adults are not sufficiently active in their leisure time to achieve health benefits; nearly 30 percent are not physically active at all, government surveys report. In their day-to-day lives, many people are less active than earlier generations because modern conveniences, from e-mail to remote controls, have eliminated the need to walk.

Hill has calculated that an additional 2,000 steps a day would prevent the average Coloradan from gaining almost a pound a year -- about the average amount of weight adults in that state typically pack on in 12 months.

Other programs set 10,000 total steps a day as a target -- or about twice the number the average deskbound office worker takes. Depending on the length of a person's stride, 10,000 steps is about five miles. If one did it all in one stretch (which is not what experts suggest) at a leisurely pace, the distance could be covered in about 1 3/4 hours.

For most deskbound people, a 10,000-step target means adding from 4,000 to 6,000 steps a day. Experts suggest adding steps gradually. While the extra steps are likely to fulfill the surgeon general's recommendation for at least 30 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity, they may fall short of providing a heart-healthy aerobic workout if the pace is too slow. And they likely will not be enough to fulfill the newest government recommendation for an hour of daily physical activity.

"The key advantage of 10,000 steps is that it is a simple message," said David Bassett Jr., an exercise physiologist at the University of Tennessee. "And from what we know, it has health benefits."

Ten thousand steps can be a daunting goal for sedentary adults starting out at 3,000 steps a day, Hill said. And 10,000 steps are probably not enough for children, said Catrine Tudor-Locke, a health promotion expert at Arizona State University East.

Step-counting is nothing new. The Romans tallied their paces -- 2,000 equaled a Roman mile. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) developed the concept of a pedometer to measure the steps of either a person or a horse. Although Thomas Jefferson often is cited as the pedometer's inventor, he probably was actually the first to bring it to America, Tudor-Locke said.

Today, popularity of the devices is soaring.

"We ... can't keep them in inventory," said Teresa Vollenweider, president of New Lifestyles of Kansas City, Mo. She said sales were about 150 a month in 1998, and now, one order might be for 20,000.

Pedometers typically cost between $10 and $50. Besides their basic step-counting function, they are also available with features such as the ability to play music, keep time, read heart rates and measure calories.

"What it gives American people is instantaneous gratification and feedback," said Andrew Carver, president of Walk4Life of Plainfield, Ill., which has seen sales grow from about $100,000 in 1999 to several million dollars this year. "We are a society where everything has to happen now, and we need a device that will actually give us that response back."

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