Finding an Accurate Pedometer for Counting Your Steps

Pedometer on Waistband
Ruth Jenkinson/Dorling Kindersley/Getty

How accurate is your pedometer? Are you really walking 10,000 steps per day? Pedometers underwent rapid evolution in the past couple of decades from the older designs with spring-lever and pendulum mechanisms to those that use a piezo-electric mechanism, and to accelerometer chips built into mobile devices and fitness bands.

Accuracy of Pedometers Worn on Your Waistband

Older studies found that piezo-electric mechanisms were more accurate for counting steps in both children and overweight adults. Spring mechanisms are affected by tilt, while dual-axis and tri-axis accelerometers are not affected by tilt and can be worn in a wider variety of positions.

Tri-axial piezo-electric pedometers tested less accurate when carried in a pocket and when walking at very slow speed or very high speeds. They were generally accurate within 5 percent, which is 500 steps in 10,000 steps, when worn on the waist, lanyard, or armband while walking at a moderate pace. However, pedometers have been shown to not be accurate when people walk at a very slow pace.

The bottom line is if you are going to buy a pedometer to wear on your hip, check what kind of mechanism it has. It's best to buy one that can be worn in a variety of positions so you will have better accuracy with less fuss. If the pedometer doesn't tout that as an option, look for one that does.

Accuracy of Fitness Bands and Apps

Step tracking has largely moved past non-connected pedometers worn on your waistband to app-connected activity monitors, especially those worn on the wrist. However, which of these are accurate is a moving target as they continue to evolve. Manufacturers can improve their accuracy by studying the data and revising the algorithm that translates the movement they sense into steps. They can then update the software of the device rather than the user having to buy a new device.

However, it was quite a blow when a small 2017 study pitted the Fitbit Charge and Smart Health wristbands against an Omron HJ-303 waistband accelerometer and a Sportline spring-lever model. In their short treadmill test, researchers counted steps taken via video and manually counted with a clicker to compare with what the units registered. The Fitbit Charge was the least accurate, followed by the Smart Health wristband. Surprisingly, the Omron was less-accurate than the Sportline in this test.

A study of the accuracy of activity monitors and fitness bands in estimating calories burned found that the best of them were accurate to 9 percent and the Nike FuelBand performed poorly with an accuracy variation of over 23 percent. The study compared the BodyMedia FIT, Fitbit Zip, Fitbit One, Nike FuelBand, Jawbone UP, Basis B1 Band, and others. Several of these devices are no longer produced.

Meanwhile, many people are simply using the data they can get from their mobile phone's built-in accelerometer chip. A study that pitted smartphone pedometer apps against fitness bands and hip-worn pedometers found that the apps and hip-worn pedometers were quite accurate for counting steps on a treadmill, while the fitness bands had the most variation.

Accuracy Studies of Waistband Pedometers

Classic studies of old-school pedometers were done by researchers at the University of Tennessee in 2003 and 2004. Even older studies pinpointed the Yamax 200 as the most accurate pedometer for counting steps and estimating distance in lab conditions. As a result, it was used as a reference. In one study, the test subjects wore the Yamax 200 on one hip and the test pedometers on the other hip to compare step totals. The test subjects logged an average of 9244 steps a day, nearly the goal of 10,000 steps promoted by several pedometer walking programs.

Most Accurate Pedometers For Daily Step Counting: These models matched the standard pedometer

  • New-Lifestyles NL-2000
  • Yamax Digi-Walker SW-701
  • Yamax Digi-Walker SW-200 (Review)
  • Sportline 330
  • Kenz Lifecorder

Underestimated Steps: If you use one of these pedometers, you may be walking more steps than it counts.

  • Accusplit Alliance 1510
  • Freestyle Pacer Pro (discontinued 2010)
  • Colorado on the Move
  • Yamax Skeletone EM-180
  • Sportline 345 (Review)

Overestimated Steps: If you use one of these pedometers, you may not be walking as many steps as it records.

  • Walk4Life LS 2525 (Review)
  • Omron HJ-105
  • Oregon Scientific PE316CA

Most Accurate Pedometers for Distance and Calories

Which pedometers are the most accurate for step counting, distance estimating, and calorie expenditure estimating? The University of Tennessee research group compared 10 pedometers.

The study found that all of the pedometers recorded too many steps at slower speeds, but improved when walking at faster speeds. The researchers used a treadmill and visually counted steps to compare what was recorded by the pedometers. They also placed pedometers on each hip and compared the totals between them to see how reliable they were in tracking the same motion by the same person.

Most Accurate Pedometers

These pedometers recorded steps with 99 percent accuracy:

  • Yamax Digi-Walker SW-200 (Review)
  • New Lifestyles 2000
  • Walk4Life LS 2525 (Review)
  • Omron
  • Kenz Lifecorder
  • Yamasa Skeletone

Less Accurate

  • Sportline 330 (SL330)
  • Sportline 345 (SL345)
  • Oregon Scientific
  • Freestyle Pacer Pro

Accuracy for Distance

Six of the pedometers calculated distance, which most of them did with 90 percent accuracy at a moderate walking pace, but were less reliable with a slow walking pace of 2 miles per hour. Distance accuracy depends on taking the same step length each time, as well as being able to accurately measure that step length and input it into the pedometer. These variables make pedometers less reliable at estimating distance vs. counting steps.

Accuracy for Calories

Pedometers use the walker's weight and the steps and distance to estimate calories burned. The researchers noted that it was unclear whether the pedometers were displaying net calories (the additional calories you burn by walking vs. what you would have burned sitting on the couch) or if they are displaying gross calories (not deducting the calories you would have burned just sitting around). If they display net calories, they are overestimating the amount significantly. If they are displaying gross calories they are still only accurate to 70 percent. Think twice before deciding to treat yourself based on the numbers displayed.

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