Researchers examined data on 1,297 participants from clinical trials that randomly assigned half of the people to track steps with pedometers over 12 weeks while the rest of them did no tracking at all.
When they joined the trial, people took about 7,500 steps a day and got 90 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity in at least 10-minute bouts.
Three to four years later, people who used pedometers were getting about 30 more minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, the study found. Pedometer users were also 44% less likely to experience a fracture and 66% less likely to have a serious cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke.
“Increasing your walking and maintaining this can reduce your risk of heart attacks, strokes and fractures over the next few years,” said lead study author Tess Harris, a professor of primary care research at St George’s University of London in the U.K.
“Pedometers can be helpful for patients to use, as they give people a clear idea of how much they are doing (self-monitoring) and can be used to set realistic goals for increasing their walking gradually,” Harris said.
She explained, “There is no one appropriate step-count for everyone, it is important for individuals to measure their own baseline step-count and then to have a plan to gradually increase both how often they walk and how fast they walk in a safe way for them.”
People ranged in age from 45 to 75 years old when they joined the pedometer trials, and they were typically overweight or obese. Most of them were non-smokers in good healthy without any history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or depression.
While people who got pedometers appeared less prone to diabetes or depression by the end of the study, the difference between this group and the participants who didn’t track steps was too small to rule out the possibility that it was due to chance.
Based on the magnitude of reduced risk for events like heart attacks and strokes, 61 people would need to track steps with a pedometer to prevent one cardiovascular event, researchers estimated.
And based on magnitude of reduced fracture risk with pedometers, 28 people would need to track steps with a pedometer to prevent one fracture, the study team calculated.
Trial participants did have some help setting realistic walking goals, and also received coaching from nurses and were encouraged to keep step diaries.
This extra support may be a key ingredient for successful health outcomes from tracking steps, said Dr Mitesh Patel, Director of the Penn Medicine Nudge Unit at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“Tracking your daily activity with a pedometer, wearable, or smartphone is an important part of any physical activity program,” Patel said. “However, it should be combined with other behaviour change strategies such as goal-setting, coaching, or social interventions to increase sustainability.”
One limitation of the study is that researchers lacked four years of data for some participants, the study team notes in Plos Medicine. Most of the participants were also white and female, and it’s possible results would be different for other populations.
Even so, there’s little harm in giving a pedometer a try, said Dr David Geier, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Don’t obsess about the number of steps, but try to go for a walk every day,” said Geier, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Hopefully it will become a habit and encourage you to become active in other ways in your life.”