Pedometers may help elderly move more

Published May 31, 2012

| Reuters

Using a pedometer might motivate sedentary older adults to fit more walking into their daily routines, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that giving older adults a pedometer along with exercise advice seemed to work better than advice alone -- at least as far as encouraging "leisure" walking.

That refers to things like walking to the store instead of driving.

"Leisure walking is seen as a manageable form of physical activity for older adults, and hence should be more actively encouraged," said Gregory S. Kolt, a professor at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, who led the study.

Pedometers are small devices usually worn at the waist that count the number of steps the wearer takes. They can be used during one long walk or throughout the day to see how many steps are racked up.

Experts often recommend people aim to take 10,000 steps each day (a 20-minute walk would be roughly equivalent to 2,000 steps).

The reality, though, is that many of us make little use of our feet. One study found that the typical American takes just over 5,000 steps a day. People in some other countries were doing better; adults in western Australia, for example, were close to the 10,000-step goal (see Reuters story of October 14, 2010.)

But getting older adults on their feet is particularly challenging.

In New Zealand, the government funds a program called Green Prescription, where doctors "prescribe" exercise and patients get a few follow-up phone calls from an exercise counselor to see how they are doing.

For the new study, Kolt's team looked at whether adding a pedometer to the program would help older adults boost their walking even more.

The researchers randomly assigned 330 sedentary adults age 65 and up to either the standard Green Prescription program or the pedometer-based version.

People in the standard program were told to boost the amount of time they were active each day, and the pedometer group focused on steps.

After a year, participants in the pedometer group had increased their strictly leisure-time walking by 50 minutes a week, on average. That compared with a 28-minute increase in the other group, the researchers reported in the Annals of Family Medicine.

On the other hand, there was no clear difference between the two groups in overall physical activity levels -- which included walking for exercise. Older adults in both groups ended up averaging about 140 minutes of any type of walking each week.

What's more, blood pressure improved in both groups. Pedometer or not, older adults shaved around 10 points from their systolic pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading).

So should older adults invest in a pedometer?

Kolt said the devices may be helpful for some, since they offer a way to monitor your activity levels and might motivate you to meet, or exceed, your goals.

They are also fairly cheap -- at around $20 in the U.S.

"Leisure walking is an important component of overall physical activity -- especially in older adults," Kolt told Reuters Health in an email.

So if a pedometer can encourage an older adult to do that type of walking, he said, that would be a good thing.

A caveat, though, is that people in this study were all part of a structured exercise-motivation program.

However, Kolt said, other studies have also suggested pedometers can help people boost, and maintain, their activity levels.

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