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Pedometers, smartphone apps and other devices can motivate and entertain walkers

By Consumers Union of United States Inc.,

You already know that walking is good for you. It can reduce your risk of heart disease, relieve stress, improve blood pressure and blood sugar, strengthen bones, ease some menopause symptoms, keep your brain sharp, aid in weight loss and possibly add a few years to your life. But plodding along the same route or getting back on the treadmill can feel monotonous after a while. The following tips can help you jazz up your walks and bring them into the digital age with apps and gadgets designed to boost motivation, track your progress and keep you entertained.

Use a pedometer. In a recent study in the Annals of Family Medicine, older adults who wore these step-counting devices as part of an “exercise prescription” from their doctor ended up walking an extra 50 minutes a week over the next year, compared with an extra 28 minutes in a control group that got an exercise prescription but no pedometers. An excellent model from Consumer Reports’ last tests was the Mio Trace Acc-Tek ($30). It worked equally well at faster and slower walking speeds. Aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day.

Try a smartphone app. Like traditional pedometers, these count steps and compute distance based on your stride length. The Accupedo Pedometer Widget (for Android; $4) and Pedometer Pro GPS+ (for iPhone, iPad and iPodTouch; $3) made good walking buddies in our last tests.

Pedometers are great for counting steps, but they don’t really tell you how hard you’re working. For that, you might want to invest in a heart-rate monitor, which can help you track your intensity. The Timex Personal Trainer 5G971 ($50) and Omron HR-100C ($40) were rated excellent in Consumer Reports’ last tests.

Pump up your playlist. There’s some evidence that listening to upbeat music with a fast tempo can make workouts more fun by distracting you from the fact that you’re exercising. And it can motivate you to work harder, says Jessica Matthews, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. If the music on your MP3 player is getting stale, check out walk.jog.fm, which lets you search for songs based on such criteria as beats per minute (for brisk walking, look for 137 to 139 BPM), and buy them via Amazon or iTunes.

Get some fresh air. Recent research shows that walking outdoors made people feel happier, particularly if the walks took place along a coast or in the countryside. So if you find yourself on vacation in a beautiful spot, take advantage of the opportunity to explore on foot.

Invest in a weighted vest. The vests, which typically come with removable weight packets, are often safer than carrying hand weights, since they allow for the weight to be more evenly distributed over the body. Start with 5 percent of your body weight and work up to a maximum of 10 percent.

Hold walk-and-talk meetings at work. Wear a lanyard or sticker that indicates you’re in a meeting so people don’t interrupt as you walk by, suggests James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who now conducts all of his meetings on foot. The same concept can apply to catch-up sessions with friends. Instead of dinner or drinks, take a walk.

Consider an on-body monitoring device. An option for tech-savvy exercisers, these devices measure such variables as calories burned, steps taken, workout intensity and even sleep quality via sensors on an armband that you wear most hours of the day. You can upload the data from the device to your computer with a USB cable.

One brand Matthews has used, BodyMedia, ranges in price from $100 to $199. (The pricier model transfers your information automatically to your smartphone.) Software is free for the first three months and costs $6.95 per month after that. Consumer Reports has not tested these devices.

Join a club. The American Heart Association offers a directory of local walking clubs at www.mywalkingclub.org. If you shop at Walgreens, you can track your progress and receive store coupons by signing up for the “Walk with Walgreens” program (walk.walgreens.com). Or take your book club outdoors if weather permits.

Progress gradually. If you’re not a walking warrior already, start slowly by incorporating 20 to 25 minutes of walking into your daily routine. If that’s too much, start with 10 minutes and build from there.

Keep it interesting. Levine adds three 10-second sprints to his walks each day. “One of my friends saw me and said, ‘You should’ve seen yourself sprinting in your suit with your briefcase!’ ”

Copyright 2012. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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