Counting steps with activity trackers


Jeff Hill is counting his steps — all 20,000 of them.

With his Garmin Vivofit around his wrist, Hill wakes up at the crack of dawn, around 4 or 5 a.m. He walks to the Bonneville Shoreline trail to start his day and often goes biking, running or to the gym, all while the word continues to sleep.

The fitness tracker attached to the BYU professor’s wrist uses accelerometers, altimeters and algorithms to track his health and fitness. It measures and provides Hill with instantaneous data of his steps taken, calories burned, heart rate and quality of sleep.

“I like that it counts my steps, day and night,” Hill said. “My goal for each day is to reach 20,000 steps, and I would not walk nearly as much if it wasn’t being measured.”

Counting steps is nothing new. For years health experts have promoted pedometers as a way for individuals to track their fitness as well as to encourage them to become more active.

The old-style pedometers, which clip on to a user’s waistband or belt, are simple and inexpensive but lack the attractive features that can be found on the new high-tech wrist gadgets such as the Garmin Vivofit, Fitbit Charge and Jawbone Up. These can sync users’ data to their smartphones or computers and keep detailed records of users’ activity.

An estimated 19 million activity tracking devices were in use in 2014 according to a report by Juniper Research. That number is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. The research group predicts that the use of activity trackers — also called fitness wearables — will triple to nearly 60 million devices by 2018.

According to Garmin, one of the leading developers of fitness wearables, “Prolonged periods of inactivity, like sitting, decrease your body’s production of fat-burning enzymes. That effect can be reversed with frequent, short walk breaks.”

With activity trackers, users can track their movements throughout the day. Trackers show them how much (or how little) they are moving as well as where they can move more during the day.

Several activity trackers, including the Garmin Vivofit, Polar A300 and the Nike Fuel Band, have time sensors that track inactivity. After a prolonged time of inactivity, the tracker will alert the user that it’s time to get up and move. This helps motivate users to find more opportunity for physical activity throughout the day.

Studies have shown that people are 30 to 40 percent more active when they use activity trackers.

“There are literally hundreds of benefits from being active throughout the day — physical, mental and emotional,” said Larry Tucker, BYU’s Y Be Fit program director. “The body and mind are much healthier when a person is active virtually every day.”

According to The Walking Site, a sedentary person may only average 1,000 to 3,000 steps a day. The site recommends that people first set short-term goals, such as taking an extra 500 steps per day, until they can easily reach their long term goal of 10,000 steps. The average person’s stride length is approximately 2.5 feet long, meaning it takes just over 2,000 steps to walk one mile; 10,000 steps is close to five miles.

“Ten thousand steps is a good goal for most,” Tucker said, “but not necessarily all at once.”

Tucker recommends setting weekly goals and exponentially increasing physical activity by five minutes per day. “A good goal is to do something,” Tucker said. “Of course, it much depends on the person, but the bottom line is to get started and increase your activity beyond what you were doing before.”

Although experts say 10,000 steps a day is a good number to reach, the origins of the recommendation aren’t exactly scientific. Pedometers sold in Japan in the mid-1960s were marketed under the name “manpo-kei,” which translates to “10,000 steps meter.” The idea resonated with people and gained popularity as people set their daily fitness goals at 10,000 steps a day.

The new high-tech fitness trackers can do more than just count steps. They reinforce, motivate and reward by turning fitness into a game.

In most cases users have the ability to share and compare their data online with friends as they sync their activity trackers to their smartphones or computers. They allow users to keep detailed records, set goals and “compete” with friends via social media.

Several big companies throughout the nation, including Ernst & Young, have issued activity trackers to their employees to encourage a healthy and active lifestyle. Employee wellness programs are popular across the United States. Fitness trackers and the mobile apps that come alongside them allow workers to count calories and steps, monitor sleep patterns, compete against colleagues and earn prizes.

BYU alumna and partner at Ernst & Young Sandy Wight loves the competitive spirit that loomed throughout the company as employees nationwide participated in the activity challenge.

“It was so fun because everyone was participating,” she said. “It became a topic of conversation as we would all compare our stats. We were grouped into teams, with more than 2,000 teams across the country. It really made me work hard and get my steps in for each day because I didn’t want to let my team down.”

Although fitness trackers aren’t 100 percent accurate, they do provide a reasonable estimate of how much physical activity is being incorporated into one’s daily routine, as well as motivate users to keep moving.

“I’ve tested it out. It’s within 5 percent accuracy,” Hill said. “My activity tracker gives me motivation to take care of my body. And that’s the heart of health. And health is the heart of a happy life.”

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