How much do you really move each day?

To help answer that question, a team of researchers asked 96 healthy adults, ages 20 to 70 to wear pedometers (belt-mounted step counting devices) for a week, except while sleeping, showering or engaging in recreational sports. People in the study also kept a log of how much activity they thought they performed. When researchers compared the activity estimates with the hard facts from pedometers, they found little agreement.

"Some people may be sufficiently active without realizing it," says David R. Bassett, professor of health and exercise science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and lead author of the study, which was published in 2000 in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. "And then there are others, who think they may be active because they play sports three times a week, but when they're not playing sports they are actually very sedentary. The pedometer can serve as a wake-up call."

In fact, these small devices, which resemble an electronic pager and can cost less than $20, are involved with a growing number of scientific studies and public health programs:

* In Canada, University of Waterloo researchers gave pedometers to a small group of people with type 2 diabetes. Reporting last year in the journal Patient Education and Counseling, the team noted "an immediate and dramatic increase in walking" of 34 minutes a day, on average -- a new behavior that was sustained by participants two months after the study ended.

* Colorado on the Move (www.coloradoonthemove.org), a statewide public health program designed by researchers at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver and launched in October by Gov. Bill Owens, encourages residents to purchase a pedometer and measure their daily activity and then boost their steps by 2,000 a day -- the equivalent of walking for about 15 to 20 minutes, or roughly a mile. Researchers say that amount of activity will help stave off the average two pounds that most Americans gain every year.

* Brown University researchers have found in studying a national registry of several thousand people who have lost large amounts of weight and kept it off for years that "successful losers" take 10,877 steps per day, or about 6,000 more than people just entering a weight loss program.

A number of Lean Plate Club members have also begun wearing pedometers and report that it helps remind them to stay active throughout the day. As a member from Arlington noted in the Jan. 28 LPC Web chat: "Just got my new pedometer in the mail this past weekend and think it is so cool! I clocked a whopping 12,000 steps on Saturday and a measly 2,335 on Sunday. Guess I have to work on my Sunday laziness, huh?"

It's that kind of awareness about physical activity that pedometers help foster, experts say. "They're a motivational tool to increase physical activity," says Bassett, who not only studies pedometers but also wears one himself. "In days gone by, people didn't need this because they had enough physical activity built into their daily routine. But with the advent of e-mail and remote control and other things, our activity levels have gone down. The pedometer reminds us that we need to boost it back up to where it should be."

If you're considering buying a pedometer, here's what you need to know:

Simple is best. While they can come with all kinds of bells and whistles, from calorie counters to AM/FM radios, "steps are all you need to pay attention to," says Gregory Welk, professor of health and human performance at Iowa State University in Ames. A few sources for inexpensive pedometers include www.digiwalker.com, www.walk4life.com and www.accusplit.com.

Wear it correctly. Pedometers should be worn, not carried. They can be positioned at any point on the waist, but are best placed roughly in line with one hip, where research suggests that they most accurately count steps.

No magic number. Walking 2,000 steps is roughly equal to a mile. While some studies suggest that 10,000 steps a day helps with weight loss and is linked with other benefits including a lower percentage of body fat, reduced blood pressure and improved glucose tolerance tests, experts underscore that there's no magic number of steps.

"People have targeted this mythical 10,000-step-a-day guideline," Welk notes. What counts more, he says, is slowly increasing the number of steps taken each day over your own baseline.

Keep records. At the University of Louisville in Kentucky, researchers gave pedometers to 49 working women who were generally sedentary. Half the women were randomly assigned to log their daily activity for 12 weeks; the other half kept no records. Those who tracked their daily activity averaged 2,147 steps a day at the end of the study -- nearly 1,500 more than those who didn't log their steps. "Recording daily activity is a cost-effective and acceptable intervention" that may help increase activity, the team reported in the November 2001 issue of Nursing Research.

And of course, wearing a pedometer fits well with the goals of Make the Move, the eight-week challenge launched this month by the Lean Plate Club. Make the Move is designed to slowly boost lifestyle activities, both for the chronically sedentary and for those who work out regularly but may not be active much of the rest of the day.

Make the Move Challenge Goals

* Aim this week for three, two-minute walks a day. Or one six-minute walk. (From feedback we've received, it appears that many who set out on "two-minute" walks wind up walking far longer, proving the adage that the first step is always the hardest.)

* Identify some windows of opportunity for these brief walks. Schedule some of them on your calendar for the week ahead -- then try to see if you can keep your walking "appointments." Ultimately, when you're walking for longer periods, you'll need that discipline and ability to fit your walk into your schedule.

-- Sally Squires

What steps are you taking to boost your physical activity? How are you coping with the Make the Move challenge? Tell us -- -or ask any question about nutrition -- when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club, our online discussion about healthy eating and exercise. You can join the chat live today from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com. To subscribe to the Lean Plate Club electronic newsletter, log on to www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/email/front.htm