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Correction to This Article
This column should have said that some White House employees have pedometers, not that employees of the Office of Management and Budget received pedometers at the White House.

The Misfits: A look at pedometers' impact on weight loss

By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, November 12, 2009

What if there was a small, inexpensive device that was proven to boost your fitness, help you lose weight and lower your blood pressure? Would you use it, especially if doing so was nearly effortless?

Jane Bonin does. She has for the past eight months and swears by it. "It's just a way of tricking yourself into doing the right thing," says the 73-year-old writer and former college professor who lives in Dupont Circle.

Hundreds of people at the Office of Management and Budget have one. They've got them at the White House. More than 3,000 Stanford University employees have tried them, as have people in various workplaces.

And yet, buying a pedometer is not the first -- or second, or third -- piece of advice you typically receive when you turn to someone and say: "I really need to get in shape, but I hate exercising. What should I do?"

But it probably should be, says Dena Bravata, a physician and senior research scientist at Stanford who analyzed 26 studies of pedometer use and found clear evidence that people who have them get more exercise, lose weight and lower their blood pressure. In fact, the decrease in blood pressure was equivalent to results achieved through much more expensive interventions that involve doctors and pharmacists, she said. And in a relatively short time, many people were able to lower their body mass index enough to move from the "obese" to "overweight" category.

"What we found was, on average, that wearing a pedometer increased people's physical activity by about 2,000 steps per day," Bravata said. "That's equivalent to about a mile."

There is little dispute that walking is one of the best, cheapest and easiest things you can do for your health, especially if you're older than 50. And there is equally little disagreement that most people don't do enough of it.

For many, a pedometer helps break through psychological barriers by providing motivation, accountability and a sense of control, according to Bravata and people who use the devices.

As a rule, people overestimate the amount of exercise they get. Keeping track can be eye-opening. Falling short motivates people to find ways to walk more, Bonin says.

"I have walked the corridors of this building many a night, trying to work off my last steps," says Bonin, whose goal is 10,000 steps a day, or about five miles.

A pedometer allows you to make quick, beneficial changes, Bravata says. "You can diet like mad, exercise like mad all day long, and tomorrow morning, it's unlikely you would have made a significant difference" in your weight, she said. In contrast, if you attach a pedometer to your hip and take a reading of your baseline walking distance, tomorrow you can increase that distance, sometimes significantly.

It's important to keep your results in a log or diary, as anyone who has tried to stick to a diet can attest. You'll discern patterns, good and bad, in your exercise routine. Blank spots or days when you just can't squeeze in a walk provide added motivation.

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