Tick, tick, tick. Your co-worker walks by. Tick, tick, tick. The guy next to you at the gym pedals away on his stationary bike. Tick, tick, tick. There it is again.

No, you're not going crazy. You're just hearing the sound of one of the hottest new fitness trends that's about the size of a yo-yo and goes with you almost anywhere — the pedometer.

Unlike other fitness trends such as kickboxing and yoga, this little device can go anywhere, at anytime — except in the pool, and I'm sure the pedometer companies are working on that design, too.

In the last few years pedometers have boomed in popularity. Heck, even McDonald's gave them out in their health-conscious Go Active! Adult Happy Meals, and Kellogg's put them in boxes of Special K cereal. Pedometer companies are reporting increased sales as more Americans are clipping pedometers to their belts to knock inches off their waistline and to improve their health.

Fitness centers are jumping on the bandwagon, too. The Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Department of the Naval District Washington has been issuing these step-counters for the past two and a half years as a part of their Step Into Fitness Command Challenge. The challenge encourages registered teams and individuals to increase their daily activity and get moving in a four-week challenge for commands and worksites. Ten dollars gets an individual into the program and equipped with a pedometer that is theirs to keep.

“Here we deal with a lot of headquarters in D.C. and, like many corporations, it's sedentary work,” says Carol Binzen, fitness/wellness director of the Naval District Washington, MWR Department. “Pedometers are a good way to infuse awareness of a person's activity during the day.”

Binzen says the program was initially started as an individual event, but grew into a command challenge that has fostered community and camaraderie. The challenge is offered twice a year — in the fall and spring.

“It seemed logical to offer this type of program in a worksite that is high stress and computer dependant,” she says. “It offers something for people that find fitting in exercise hard to do.”

More than 300 participants set their own step goals, but are encouraged to reach 10,000 or more steps a day, the equivalent of about 5 miles for the average person's stride. Binzen says that those who want to lose weight should aim for about 20,000 steps. Many in the program have lost weight.

Zona Lewis enrolled in the program and says that since March she's taken 2,700,000 steps, as of the end of August. That's added up to a loss of 40 pounds.

“You have to have a modified diet, too, but you can't do one without the other,” Lewis says. “Activity makes the difference.”

The non-profit Minnesota health care organization HealthPartners couldn't agree more. In fact, HealthPartners was the first in the United States to combine a pedometer with a program. The company's 10,000 Steps Program, started in 1999, has been highly successful with more than 50,000 participants. The program is $20 for members, $30 for non-members and $10 for returning, alumni steppers. Participants get to keep their pedometers at the end of the eight-month program.

When the program began, it only included a pedometer and a mail-based tip sheet, according to Maureen Convey, manager in the Center for Health Promotion at HealthPartners. In January 2003, that expanded to an on-line component that sent participants daily motivational e-mails complete with online tracking tools and healthy meal ideas. Then, in April 2004, the program expanded further and added a Lose Weight edition.

“We based the number of steps on the surgeon general's recommendations,” Convey says. “We got a lot of testimonials saying participants lost weight with 10,000 Steps.”

With more than 1,800 participants, the Lose Weight edition has the same components of the original Feel Great edition, but focuses on eating low caloric density foods and encourages participants to record their weight weekly.

Nearly all participants in the 10,000 Steps Program doubled their daily steps and 81 percent felt like they increased their physical activity during the first eight weeks, Convey says.

Now, if you're sold on the whole pedometer craze, here's the hiccup. What pedometer do you buy and use whether it's for yourself or for your clientele and patrons?

HealthPartners chose to use the YAMAX Digiwalker model after a May/June 2000 article in ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal deemed the YAMAX the most accurate. The study tested five pedometers and found the Japanese-made pedometer to record steps within one percent of the actual. Convey says no pedometer is 100 percent accurate.

A 2003 and 2004 study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise also showed YAMAX to be highly accurate. Other accurate models were the Japanese-made Kenz Life Order and the New Lifestyles NL-2000, but unlike the $30 YAMAX Digiwalker, these pedometers were among the most expensive with $50 for the New Lifestyles and a whopping $200 for the Kenz.

Another YAMAX model, the Skeletone EM-180 came in as moderately accurate along with the Walk4Life LS 2525, the Sportline 345, the Freestyle Pacer Pro and the Oregon Scientific PE 316CA. Although less accurate, these models were far less expensive, ranging in price from $15 to $30.

Pedometers also range in the features they offer. Some, such as the McDonald's “stepometer,” just give a simple step count. Walk4Life's most popular model, the LS2515, has a step counter, a mileage counter, and it tabulates exercise/activity time. More deluxe models offer a clock and a calories burned reading. And, if you're willing to hear it, some will even tell you to get off the couch and play you music while you move.

There's no doubt about the pedometer's popularity though. Walk4Life has reported increasing sales every year. Since its creation in 1999, the company has sold more than 1.5 million of the little gizmos.

“Pedometers' popularity has really taken off in the last couple of years,” Convey says of the 10,000 Steps Program's use of pedometers. “There is an increase in the interest, because it's easy for people to use, provides immediate feedback and makes guidelines easier to reach.”

But will pedometer use and sales last? Or, like other fitness trends, will popularity surge only to fall within a few years? Convey thinks the craze has sustainability because of its convenience. With a pedometer you don't have to run to a class or learn fancy choreography. Binzen is also sold on the pedometer notion. She hopes it's not a trend, but rather a way to bring America back to a fit, healthy lifestyle.

The success of pedometer-based programs is no doubt encouraging for many organizations and health clubs looking to attract new members or to please current ones.

Benson offers a few words of advice for those looking to start a program. She recommends getting the leadership of the organization to act as “cheerleaders” so there is always support. She also advises that a well-organized plan is a must — especially when dealing with registration, program fees and deciding whether or not members will be keeping their pedometers. Finally, she suggests closing the program with a full-out celebration and recognition for both teams and individuals who exceeded expectations.

“Pedometers are absolutely, hands down, good for anybody, whether it's a local fitness center, a corporate wellness program, YMCAs or whatever,” she says. “Anyone should be able to use this.”

The Pedometer's Popular Past

  • Pedometers have been in existence for at least 600 years. Although the invention of the pedometer is commonly attributed to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, drawings from the 15th century indicate that Leonardo da Vinci was the conceptual originator. His early designs appeared to be a gear-driven device with a pendulum arm designed to move back and forth with the swinging of the legs during walking. However, Thomas Jefferson enjoyed the use of a pedometer he purchased in France, leading some to believe he introduced pedometers to America.

  • In 1937-1938, pedometer popularity in the United States increased when children tuned in to listen to “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy” radio program. The many “exciting and valuable premiums” offered by the program's sponsor included the Jack Armstrong Hike-o-Meter pedometer. During the peak of the offer, orders averaged more than 70,000 per day with the high topping 150,000.

  • During the 1960s, the 10,000 steps per day protocol, called Manpokei, was established to encourage physical activity and provide a targeted step goal.

  • Current pedometer popularity in the United States may be attributed to the U.S. surgeon general's 2001 “call to action …to combat the obesity epidemic that threatens the health and welfare of our nation.” In addition, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports report concluded that “pedometers are practical and accurate tools for measurement and motivation for physical activity…it is entertaining to ponder that such a seemingly insignificant gadget may be of practical importance in the war on obesity!”

Source: Walk4Life Inc.