According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, programs promoting step goals - such as walking 10,000 steps per day - can encourage people to exercise enough to reap health benefits.
The aim, the CDC says, is 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five or more days a week. All steps count, whether up a mountain or around town, as long as they're brisk enough to boost your heart rate and you walk for 10 minutes or more.
A pedometer keeps track of steps for you. It can also be a good motivator, says a study released in June by the American College of Sports Medicine. Participants who used pedometers added about 2,000 steps per person per day to their routine. All this makes the pedometer sound like a great gadget. Too bad that many are inaccurate at the slow speed favored by people beginning to walk for exercise.
We tested 12 basic pedometers (they count steps) ranging in price from $12 to $55, and three speed-and-distance monitors (they track pace) that cost from $100 to $200. We asked volunteers to wear pedometers while walking on a treadmill at 2.5 mph (equivalent to a 24-minute mile) and 3.5 mph (a 17-minute mile) and compared the devices' step counts with actual counts.
To test speed-and-distance monitors, we checked distance readings after walkers completed a measured course. (If distance is accurate, speed will be, too.)
Only three basic pedometers were accurate within 5 percent at 2.5 mph. The Omron Healthcare HJ-112 ($35), the FreeStyle Tracer (at just $20, it's a CR Best Buy) and the New Lifestyles NL-2000 ($55) received top scores for accuracy. A fourth model, the $20 LifeWise 63-619, was slightly less accurate, but - like the Omron and Freestyle models - it includes a distance counter and stopwatch/timer, features lacking in the New Lifestyles. (All four count steps and calories. )
Most pedometers, meanwhile, were accurate to within 5 percent at 3.5 mph. And all were durable, still counting after the equivalent of 500,000 steps, or about 250 miles. Of the speed-and-distance monitors we tested, only one provided accurate distance within 5 percent. At $100, moreover, the Nike SDM Tailwind SM0009-001 was also the least-expensive model. It monitors distance, pace and calories, and includes an odometer (to track distance covered since the start of use) and a stopwatch. We think it's the best choice for runners and serious walkers.
Hikers and bikers may want to consider a speed-and-distance monitor that uses the Global Positioning System (GPS). While the two other monitors we tested incorporate GPS, the Timex Ironman Triathlon Bodylink System 59561 ($200) and the Garmin Forerunner 201 ($150) sacrifice some accuracy in the bargain. Note, too, that programming a GPS device can be difficult, and that it will work only in the open air: A roof or deep woods can block the satellite signal used to compute distance.
If your goal is simply to track how far you've gone during your day or on an exercise walk or run, an inexpensive pedometer will do the trick. Most are clipped - snugly, so they don't bounce around - to a belt or waistband, above the midline of the thigh. (If you've a protruding belly, it's best to wear the pedometer slightly below the waist, so the device remains vertical for accurate readings.) Programming can be as easy as entering your weight and stride length. Speed-and-distance monitors can be worn as a wristwatch (like the Timex and Garmin), as a watch combined with a device attached to a waistband or armband, or attached to a shoe (like the Nike). Some people may find wristwatch models bulky, or the shoe-attached device distracting, we found.
By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.