Donna Shaffer is counting.
Shaffer, a 52-year-old office assistant in Spokane, is counting steps. What's more, she's counting on those steps to help her lose weight and get in better shape.
"The more I exercise, the more energy I have," she says shortly before a lunchtime walk last week.
Counting steps, not minutes
Shaffer is one of a growing number of people paying attention not so much to how many minutes they exercise each day, but to how many steps they log.
Look closely and you'll see them. They're the ones in tennis shoes, with the devices that look like pagers clipped to their hips.
Those gadgets are actually pedometers, and many wearers check their numbers of steps each day in the hopes of reaching 10,000 -- equal to about five miles. The average person might log a third or half that many in one day, studies say.
There's little scientific backing behind the goal of taking 10,000 steps a day. A Japanese researcher reportedly hatched the idea several decades ago to improve the health of his country's citizens. (In fact, the Japanese word for pedometer is "manpo-kei," which means "10,000 steps meter.")
"It's a good way to motivate people," says Dr. Gary Knox, in family practice at the Moran Prairie Rockwood Clinic. "Something about looking at the pedometer gives you a little extra motivation."
A study out last year did find that middle-aged women who averaged 10,000 steps a day were more likely than others to fall within recommended weight and body-fat ranges.
Linda Nihoul, 55, a financial planner who lives in the Spokane Valley, says she has always stayed active. Counting her steps, Nihoul says, is simply another way to keep herself interested in exercise.
She doesn't wear her pedometer all the time, but she often clips it to her belt when she heads out for a walk.
"That's just kind of a fun goal," Nihoul says.
Employers stepping up
Locally, a large number of employers, including Itron and Rockwood Clinic, are outfitting their workers with pedometers and are starting office walking programs.
At the Spokane insurance firm Moloney, O'Neill, Corkery & Jones Inc., more than two-thirds of the company's 73 employees signed up for the walking program that started earlier this month, says Crystal Van Caster, who works in the accounting department and is coordinating the group.
A map of Idaho, Washington and Oregon hangs in the office kitchen to log the steps taken by employees.
More than half of the workers have recorded at least 10,000 steps a day so far, Van Caster says. The company will provide incentives, such as T-shirts, to walkers who reach their goals, she says.
"Get up and move -- that's what it's all about," she says. "Now, we're fighting for the last parking spot."
Simply wearing pedometers encourages people to find ways to get in those extra steps, she says.
"It's really not a magic number," Van Caster says. "It's being aware of how many you are doing a day and getting up and doing a few more."
Choosing a pedometer
There are a large number of pedometers on the market, and they vary widely in terms of price and accuracy.
In a test last year, Consumer Reports gave high marks to the Omron Healthcare model, followed by the FreeStyle Tracer. However, the magazine's tests found many models were inaccurate.
At The Walking Co. in River Park Square, several different models are in stock, including a pedometer with a radio and another that lights up at night.
Be sure to choose one that has the features you need, store manager Heather Clavel says.
Some can keep track of different stride lengths for runners and walkers. Some record time and speed.All will note steps and miles.
You'll also want to find a pedometer that clips securely and comfortably to your clothes, Clavel says.
And, of course, you'll want one that you can actually figure out how to program.
Exercise throughout the day
There's been much debate about whether exercise is most beneficial when done in large chunks, says 30 or 60 minutes, or when it's parceled out throughout the day. Recent studies show that even brief bursts of activity are helpful to overall health.
"You don't need it all at once," Knox says. "It's probably better to get it throughout the day. There's less risk of overuse."
But you'll get the most benefit from those steps if they are done at a fairly brisk pace. Pretend you're late for a meeting or are trying to catch the bus.
"You definitely want to get your heart rate up a little bit," he says. "But you don't want to get it up so much you can't carry on a conversation."
People who have been sedentary shouldn't launch into 10,000 steps right away.
Try adding 500 extra steps each day for a week before tacking on more, experts say.
Shaffer says she had trouble reaching 10,000 steps when she first started her program a few months ago.
It didn't take long, though, before she started meeting and beating that goal most days, she says. In addition to walking, she often rides her bike to work at the dental hygiene department at Eastern Washington University's Spokane campus. She jots her steps taken and calories burned on a calendar every day.
Between her exercise and the Jenny Craig diet, Shaffer says she has lost 18 pounds in the past nine weeks.
"I'm getting in much better shape, and I have a lot more energy than I used to," she says.
How can you work 10,000 steps into your day? Here's some advice from www.thewalkingsite.com:
- Take a walk with your spouse, child or friend
- Walk the dog
- Take the stairs
- Park farther from the store
- Walk to the store
- Get up to change the channel
- Window shop
- Plan a walking meeting
- Walk to visit a neighbor
- Walk around the garden
Staff writer Heather Lalley can be reached at (509) 459-5089 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.