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Pedometer Buyer’s Guide

By David Mendosa

Last Update: January 13, 2004

Why would anybody with diabetes bother to use a pedometer? Its basic function is simply to count steps when you walk.

Accuracy is the most important factor.

Yet most people with diabetes seldom walk unless they need to do something. More than half of us — 60 percent of Americans — are not regularly active, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health.

What most people with diabetes need is something to motivate them to get moving. Even moderate amounts of activity will improve the health of most of us, the Surgeon General says. For many people that motivator is a pedometer, because it continually monitors progress.

You have a choice of literally hundreds of models of pedometers. Most are electronic, although you may still have an older mechanical model tucked away in a drawer. Some of the newest pedometers connect to the Global Positioning Service (GPS), which provides your position accurately to three feet.

Further, you have a wider choice of features than we can list here. Besides counting your steps or distance (in miles or kilometers), different models will estimate how many calories you are burning, give you a pulse reading, or serve as a clock, a timer, or a stopwatch. A panic alarm, time actually spent exercising, music to match your pace, or a radio are additional features sometimes available. On some models you don’t have to read your progress, because the pedometer will talk to you.

The features come at a price. A basic electronic pedometer retails for under $10. GPS units go for several hundred dollars.

Unless you have a talking pedometer, from time to time you will certainly want to look at the mileage your pedometer records. Consequently, the pedometer’s display has to be easy to read while in position.

You wear a pedometer at your waist. You need to attach it securely, so in addition to the usual clip, it also needs a safety leash. It needs to be as close to the hip bone as possible for most accurate results.

The quality of manufacture is the other major factor that affects accuracy. Where possible, consider objective evaluations by consumer organizations or sports magazines. Consider where the pedometer was manufactured. Otherwise, remember that you generally get what you pay for.

A pedometer is best when it counts steps. Some models will convert your steps to distance based upon formulas applied to your average stride length. Other models may also use other formulas to convert steps to calories. Each brand of pedometer has unique formulas, but none of them take into account age, sex, or intensity of activity. Consequently, both distance and calorie conversions are estimates.

A pedometer is best for walking. It doesn’t work for cycling, because the pedometer can’t register an impact from your foot. Also, when you run, the stride length won’t be accurate because you tend to vary it. So if you run, it’s best to ignore stride length and use the number of steps instead.

If accuracy is the most important factor to look for, comfort is probably a close second. One of your first decisions when you decide to get a pedometer is whether you are going to wear it all day long every day or only when you go out for a walk. The comfort factor is more important the longer you will be wearing it.

When you start using a pedometer, you will be following in some illustrious footsteps. Thomas Jefferson is often credited with inventing the pedometer. He didn’t, but he did write James Madison from Paris in 1786 that he could buy him one, “Which shall render you an exact account of the distances you walk.” Two years later Jefferson in fact sent the pedometer to Madison.

It was 500 years ago that Leonardo da Vinci actually invented the pedometer. His Notebooks, as translated by Edward MacCurdy, describe a mechanism showing “how far one goes in an hour.” Now, you can count your steps even more accurately than Leonardo could. 

This article originally appeared in Diabetes Wellness Letter, January 2004, pages 1, 5.

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