Nov. 20, 2007— -- What if you could burn off those holiday pounds, maintain a healthy weight, and improve your heart health -- just by using a small, comparatively inexpensive device?
It may sound like an infomercial pitch. But research released today suggests that using a pedometer -- a device that counts the number of steps walked per day -- on a regular basis may be the key to achieving such health benefits.
And at a time when nearly two-thirds of the nation's population is overweight or obese, this simple option, which costs around $15 bucks, could be a step in the right direction.
"Overall, pedometer users increased their physical activity by 26.9 percent," noted lead researcher Dr. Dena Bravata and colleagues at California's Stanford University in the study. The findings are published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"Our results suggest that the use of these small, relatively inexpensive devices is associated with significant increases in physical activity and improvements in some key health outcomes, at least in the short term."
A pedometer is a small mechanical gadget, worn on the hip, which counts how many steps you take in a day. Some pedometers even convert that number into distance.
For all of its simplicity, the tool may provide just enough motivation to get people moving. The researchers found that people who used pedometers increased their physical activity by more than 2,190 steps per day -- a distance that adds up to more than a mile of extra walking.
Furthermore, the study found that using a pedometer to monitor your steps can increase physical activity and actually reduce body mass index (BMI) as well as blood pressure.
And physicians say this decrease in blood pressure could give rise to a host of related health benefits.
"Pedometer users significantly decreased their systolic blood pressure by almost 4mm Hg from baseline," the researchers noted. "Reducing systolic blood pressure by 2mm Hg is associated with 10 percent reduction in stroke mortality and a 7 percent reduction in mortality from vascular causes in middle aged populations."
It is important to note, however, that pedometers alone will not melt fat or improve heart health. Exercise experts say the best way to use a pedometer is to create goals or work with a program.
"People do wear pedometers and increase physical activity, but that doesn't mean it's cause-and-effect," says Joseph Donnelly, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas' Institute for Life Span Studies in Lawrence.
"I think the pedometer is a behavioral tool, not a cause for the steps."
Despite the lack of cause and effect, Donnelly says he uses pedometers with people all the time. The increase in physical activity comes from creating a plan, he says, and using the pedometer to monitor how well you've stuck to it.
One type of plan is to set a step goal. Experts recommend 10,000 steps each day. That may sound like a lot -- especially for those of us who work at desk jobs. But any increase in the number of steps per day is great for your body, and your blood pressure.
Another great way to get the most out of your pedometer is to follow a step program -- a blueprint for increasing the number of steps you take each day. For those interested in finding out more about such programs, there are a numbers of step plans online. Alternatively, you can talk to your heath care provider.
A $15 pedometer could do more than just help you stay fit. It turns out that inactivity is not just hurting our bodies, but our wallets too.
"The costs associated with physical inactivity are high," the study authors wrote. "If 10 percent of adults in the United States began a regular walking program, an estimated $5.6 billion in heart disease costs could be saved."
It's a lot of money to save just by walking -- something to think about this holiday season. Maybe such a stocking stuffer could be the key to increasing your physical activity, and walking off the weight.