One of the most important tools in the exercise world can fit in the palm of your hand. Pedometers, which can measure everything from steps taken to calories burned to the elevation at which you're working out, can help you get in the shape of your life.

What's so great about walking?

Harvard Medical School published results of several studies on the benefits of walking for health. They determined that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31 percent. These benefits were just as good for men as women even at distances of just 5½ miles per week with a pace as casual as about 2 miles per hour. The people who walked longer distances, at a faster pace, or both enjoyed the greatest protection.

How pedometers help

Pedometers don't burn calories all by themselves.  They're simply a way of reminding and motivating you to hit the road. Shape Up America! is a non-profit organization committed to raising awareness of obesity and to providing responsible information on healthy weight management.  In 2001, they teamed up with U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and started the 10,000 Steps program, encouraging people to walk for fitness. Ten thousand steps is the estimated number needed on a daily basis to maintain basic fitness but a hard number to keep track of.  Shape Up America recommends everyone purchase a simple pedometer to help them count steps.

Going the distance

Most of us overestimate how much walking we do. Pedometers help us more accurately estimate how much exercise we get just running through our day and how much extra we need.  With a pedometer clipped to our belt, we might be more motivated to walk during lunch, on errands, or up and down the stairs. 

Pedometers help us set personal goals and keep us honest while we work to meet them. Start out by wearing your pedometer every day for a couple weeks and measure how many steps you routinely take.  Once you know your "baseline" (average 900-3000 steps), set a goal to add more steps every day for a week.  Work your way up to 10,000 steps.  Take an after-dinner walk. Walk to work or school.  Walk the track or mall.  Treat your dog to an extra walk.  Do whatever it takes but take that step.  Now another.  They all add up.