Activity Trackers

[This post was first published back when analog pedometers were more common than accelerometer-based trackers like Fitbits. Most of the information about effectiveness and step counts still holds true.]

With all the chatter these days about whiz-bang innovations in employee wellness — mobile apps, body sensors, social media, and such — overshadowed is the lowly pedometer program. But why? I’d venture to guess that most employers running robust wellness programs, and even smaller employers just getting started, are offering some sort of pedometer-based program.

What are we to make of these programs, in which employees — usually in teams —  wear a pedometer for several weeks and record the total number of steps they take each day? Are they little more than the minor league of more hi-tech solutions?

Given my penchant for evidence-based approaches, you may assume I’d balk at pedometer programs. Not so.

The great challenge of implementing evidence-based employee wellness solutions is that there aren’t many of them. After reviewing the evidence, we frequently have to go with where it is strongest — even if it’s not very strong — as we factor in what’s most feasible and the best fit for our purposes. The “best fit” analysis may include employees’ needs, employees’ wants, resource availability, occupational factors (Do employees have internet access? Are they working on a manufacturing line? Are they in vehicles all day? What’s their educational level?), our organization’s goals and, of course, cultural fit.

I categorize pedometer programs as low-resource/modest-impact. As such, I believe they have a place in many, if not most, employee wellness programs, certainly compared to many of the high-resource/low-impact programs that have grown popular.

Here are some things we know:

  • Evidence is mixed regarding the effectiveness of pedometer programs. A limited meta-analyses of programs conducted in various settings — published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) — found “significant increases in physical activity and significant decreases in body mass index and blood pressure.” (A 2012 Finnish study concluded that a pedometer intervention “was able to affect only modestly some of the outcomes of walking,” but acknowledged, “The intervention seemed safe, inexpensive and highly adoptable in worksite setting.”)
  • Pedometers can be crude instruments. Their accuracy depends on the quality of the unit. It can vary based on participant age, weight, and walking speed. But, generally, they are sufficiently accurate to be effective in promoting physical activity.
  • Employees enjoy pedometer programs, and team-based challenges using pedometers may help foster camaraderie and a culture of health at the workplace.

Pedometer programs are affordable, scalable, well received by participants, and work about as well as anything else.

One of the more interesting, unresolved questions, about pedometer programs has to do with the goal — number of steps — recommended to participants. Employee wellness programs commonly implore participants to strive for 10,000 steps a day. Is this based on evidence? Does it work as a motivational strategy?

The question of pedometer programs’ “step goal” goes to the heart of our understanding of motivation and behavior change. We’ll get to some answers in my next blog post.

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Much to my surprise, these little devices were shown to increase physical activity by just over 2,000 steps, or about 1 mile of walking, per day.

— Dena Bravada, MD, lead researcher of a Stanford meta-analysis