Walkers use pedometers to measure their way to better health

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Diane Blackman has made great strides with her walking program. Unable to complete a city block in January, she now can hike 12 miles without a problem. And the Denver resident is ready to take the next step.

Or 10,000.

A do-it-yourself program called 10,000 Steps, made popular in Japan, is infiltrating America and keeping many people moving. Most agree the beauty of the program is its simplicity. All it takes is a pager-size device and a pair of walking shoes.

"You don't need to learn a skill. You don't need to take a class," said Taralyn Jensen of the American Heart Association, who does the 10,000 Steps program and encourages her clients to try it.

"It's something that they can afford, and they don't have to go to a gym. It's not very complicated."

A pedometer is attached to a person's waistband, where it tracks steps using a pendulum system. The devices generally cost $15 to $50, depending on what the model can do.

"Mine actually talks to me," Jensen said, adding that it also plays a tune when she gets up to walk. "You can turn the sound off, thank the Lord."

Jensen and her co-workers are in talks with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment about launching a staff walking competition using pedometers.

The goal of the Steps program is to walk 10,000 steps a day, which exceeds the surgeon general's physical-fitness recommendations of 30 minutes of exercise three times a week, said Stacy Fowler, president of the Governor's Council for Physical Fitness.

Research has shown that increasing the number of calories a person burns by 2,000 a week leads to a longer, healthier life. For the average person, walking 10,000 steps a day roughly five miles, depending on stride does that, said Fowler, a personal trainer who suggests pedometers to her clients.

Most people including Stephanie Smith, a registered dietitian who began the program six months ago with her husband are surprised by how little they walk.

"I found out if I don't do anything, I walk about 4,000 steps a day," Smith said. "If I at least make an effort to get up from my desk, maybe go for a 15-minute walk at lunch, I jump to 7,000. To get to 10,000, I really had to go home, grab the dog and the husband and do a 30-minute walk."

Pedometers aren't necessary to maintaining a successful walking program, as Blackman's experience illustrates. She's reversed leg numbness and tingling caused by peripheral vascular disease and has shed 30 pounds by walking at least an hour every morning since February.

Her main goals are to ward off heart disease, which plagues her family, and maintain walking endurance.

"I'm a traveler. There's no point in going somewhere if you can't get around," said Blackman, 55, a retired accountant.

While the self-proclaimed voracious reader motivates herself with books on tape, Blackman believes a pedometer will add new motivation and allow her to set greater goals.

It apparently is working for some.

"We want instant gratification." James Hill, director of the University of Colorado's Center for Human Nutrition, said that's why pedometers are used in the center's new weight-loss programs. For years, Hill has followed people who have lost weight and has found boosted levels of activity often walking to be a common thread for success.

Fitness centers, doctors and hospitals account for a majority of his pedometer sales, Simmons said.

Pedometers aren't just for those who want to lose weight. They also work for weight maintenance, said Hill, who has used one himself for nearly four years.

"I struggle like everyone else to find time to be physically active," he said. "I like to run and I like to play tennis, but the pedometer helps me to get in walking even when I don't find time to exercise."

Hill also buys pedometers for his 10- and 12-year-old children, although he advises parents who want to follow suit to consider straps instead of clips. "They lose them. We've gone through a few," said Hill, who buys pedometers for under $25 on the Internet.

Step counts can vary wildly from day to day. A long day of meetings, for instance, can leave Hill's pedometer registering fewer than 4,000 steps.

But an active day say, with two hours of tennis can bump him well beyond 20,000 steps.

Because of that variance, he and his program's weight-loss clients monitor weekly, not daily, totals. Going for 70,000 steps a week rather than 10,000 a day can help ward off feelings of failure, Hill said, adding that those striving to lose weight are advised to set higher goals, such as 12,000 steps a day.

Katie Duffield, 58, of Denver, who recently finished the first 16-week weight-loss session at CU with her husband, Darren, said assessing steps by the week makes the program doable.

"I have a job that requires I sit eight hours a day, so I have to push myself," she said. Sometimes she has time to exercise at the health club and sometimes she doesn't, she said.

"But the meter keeps me really aware. I never take the shortest route any longer."

Those deciding to try 10,000 Steps on their own should start slowly, said Helen Seagle, director of Kaiser Permanente's weight-management program.

Most experts advise that people find their baseline by averaging the first week's steps. They then should increase their steps by 10 percent a week until they meet their goal.

If people want to do it more slowly, that's fine, too, Seagle said.

"Research shows that if you go from being sedentary to just a little bit active, that's where you get your biggest health improvement," she said, referring to blood pressure, pulse and blood-sugar levels.

"Something is better than nothing," she added.

Experts advise beginning exercisers to talk to their doctors before starting any program.

Seagle also notes that some pedometers are better than others and that they aren't for everyone. She tried using one but didn't find it useful.

Nor does she use them in her weight-loss program.

"Some people get really inspired by them, but other people see them as a technological hassle and don't really want anything to do with them," said Seagle, a runner who had trouble keeping her pedometer attached.

"But I would certainly suggest it as something to look into. There are varying degrees of accuracy, and I think you should look around and get something that suits you."

With or without a pedometer, walking is a good exercise, most agree.

"It's actually been shown that people who take up walking for exercise stick with it and are the most successful," Jensen said. "And it's lower-impact than, certainly, jogging and running."

"It's an easy sport to participate in, no matter where I am," Blackman said.

Hill nearly doubled his step requirement on a recent trip to Europe, ringing in at 130,000 steps for the week.

Fowler said she'd like to see everyone striving for 10,000 steps a day: "It should become a habit, just like brushing your teeth."

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