The journey to better health and a longer life starts with a single step.
OK, more like 6,000 to 10,000 steps every day. At least that's what health professionals are recommending if you can't find the time to exercise as much as you should.
The idea is simple. No huffing and puffing, no gym memberships, no wrenching changes. Just the cost of a simple gadget, usually between $15 and $30. You figure out how many steps you're taking in the course of an ordinary day by clipping a pedometer on your waistband or belt, and then try to increase that number.
So just how many steps do Americans take in a day? We decided to find out. We gave five people with five very different lives pedometers to wear. Of course, just knowing that their steps were being counted may have caused them to take more of them, so it wasn't a particularly scientific survey. Still, the results may surprise you.
The Stay-at-Home Mom
Cathy Berger, 36
It was a busy day for Cathy Berger, who lives in Towson, but then they all are. She has four children aged 6 and under.
"It was Mommy this and Mommy that," she says. She got the two oldest ready for school and walked one to the bus stop, then hurried back to take the other to preschool. Her son had a doctor's appointment. She was up and down the stairs more times than she could count.
By the time that Cathy had made dinner, fed and bathed the kids, and settled down for a quiet dinner with her husband, she had walked about five miles.
"When you see the mileage, you say wow," she says. "It didn't seem that far. It makes you feel kind of good. On those days when you think you aren't accomplishing anything, at least you're doing something good for yourself physically."
For more formal exercise, Cathy -- who is 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 125 pounds -- runs, usually a mile.
"If I can make it a couple of days a week, I'm doing well," she says.
The Insurance Agent
David Charon, 42
It's lucky David Charon, who describes his health as "excellent," likes to play basketball a couple of nights a week and spends time in the gym lifting weights and doing aerobics or other cardiovascular work several other times a week. He isn't getting much exercise sitting at a desk.
"I thought it would have been more," David admits after checking out his pedometer reading. "I feel like I'm always walking." The actual distance covered was less than two miles.
The majority of his day was spent in his Glen Burnie office, although he did have two outside appointments while he was wearing his pedometer. At 5:30 p.m. he headed for his Ellicott City home, and after dinner took off his pedometer to play basketball. (They aren't accurate for more intense activities where your stride varies.)
David has a good attitude about his low step total -- as he should, given that he's a fit 205 pounds and 6 feet tall. "Because I exercise strenuously four days a week," he says, "My time at work is good recovery time."
The Letter Carrier
Jeff Ficek, 42
You would expect a postman to take a lot of steps. What you might not expect is that Jeff Ficek does kung fu in his spare time. The Parkville resident even walks to a shopping center near his home sometimes instead of driving.
"I like to stay healthy," he says. "I weigh the same as I did when I graduated high school." (That's 170 pounds on a 5-foot-10-inch frame.)
Jeff clipped on the pedometer when he woke up, but the steps didn't start to mount up until he got to the Loch Raven post office and began collecting mail and loading his truck. He started his route at 10:30 a.m. and was back at 4:45 p.m. As usual, he drove to an area, walked his route, and then drove to the next area. Back at home by 5:15 p.m., he left his pedometer on for 45 minutes of kung fu after dinner.
"It's not that jump-around stuff," he explains. "It's more steps."
He was surprised to see he had walked 10.14 miles that day. "I wouldn't have guessed it would come out to that much."
All the walking has left Jeff in good health; he hasn't called in sick in a couple of years. But there is a downside. Three years ago he had to have foot surgery -- letter carriers often have problems with feet and knees.
The Jack-of-All Trades
Kelly Williams, 27
Kelly Williams is on the go. The White Marsh resident has a full-time job in the Baltimore County Register of Wills scanning and imaging department and two part-time jobs: one as host-ess / barista at Donna's in the Village of Cross Keys and the other as a sales associate at Chico's. She's saving up her money to go to law school.
Her day job could be sedentary, but it actually involves more steps than you might think, delivering files and running over to the court-house. Kelly also parks several blocks from work, partly to get a little more exercise into her busy schedule.
But what really put the miles on her pedometer was her 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. shift at Donna's, which was busy that night because of a wine tasting.
"It was a pretty good turnout," says Kelly. "Still, the number floored me a little." She had walked almost five miles.
In spite of her work schedule, she does manage to get to the Y two or three times a week, where she uses the treadmill and does floor exercises and aerobics, which keeps her 155 pounds looking trim on her 5-foot-1-inch frame.
Joan Person, 30
I was shocked," Joan Person says. Before she left her Lochearn home, she had already walked 200 steps, simply making her breakfast and lunch and ironing some clothes. By the end of the day she had covered roughly seven miles.
She woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for her 12-hour shift in Union Memorial Hospital's geriatric care unit. Once there she was on her feet most of the time, doing rounds every two hours, handing out medicines, and dealing with doctors and paperwork.
"You're constantly going back and forth," she says.
She was still surprised at her step total. "I guess we don't pay much attention to how much we walk."
Joan has a full-time job at Union Memorial but works only three days a week because of her long hours. That leaves time to exercise at Curves Fitness two or three times a week. She rates herself as in "pretty good health" at 5 feet 7 inches tall and 215 pounds.
So you bought a pedometer, wore it and found you were taking about the number of steps the average American does, roughly 3,000 to 5,000. How do you work more steps into your day? Here are some suggestions.
* Make a daily walk in the neighborhood a family outing, not a solitary exercise.
* Leave the car in the garage for those short jaunts.
* Take the stairs.
* At work use the copying machine or restroom on another floor.
* Don't look for the closest parking spot.
* When you're waiting for a store to open or for a class to start, don't just stand. Walk up and down the sidewalk or hall.
* Have a walking break instead of a coffee break.
* If you have several bags to carry from the car, don't try to do it in just one trip.
* Pace when you're working on a problem.
How to choose a pedometer
Like most gadgets these days, pedometers offer a lot of extras if you're willing to pay for them; but the most inexpensive, basic models give you what you need: They use your body motion to determine the number of steps taken.
Our subjects used Freestyle Pacer Pro pedometers, which cost around $20 and let you input your stride length. With that number the pedometer can calculate the miles (or kilometers) walked, as well as the steps. If you're shopping for a pedometer, this is a feature you'll want to have.
The more expensive pedometers also estimate calories burned if you input your weight. Unfortunately, it's a very rough estimate -- not worth spending a lot of extra money for.
Other features include clocks, timers, stopwatches and pulse-rate readers. Make sure the display is easy to read without taking the pedometer off and that its clip will hold it on your belt or waistband securely.