How to Choose the Best Pedometer

On Your Wrist, Waistband, or Built into Your Watch or Phone

Pedometers and Fitness Trackers
Pedometers and Fitness Trackers. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Wearing a pedometer or fitness tracker and recording your daily steps is a great motivating tool. You can wear a pedometer all day, every day, and record total steps. Or you can wear it just when you go out for a walking workout. The best choices for pedometers include those you wear on your wrist or waistband as well as apps you can use to track your steps.

What Kind of Pedometer is Best?

All pedometers count steps but use different sensors.

App-linked pedometers and fitness bands such as Fitbit use accelerometer chips and sophisticated programming to detect motion as steps. Cell phones also have these chips and can count your steps when you carry your phone and you can view your steps with a pedometer app.

The old-school pedometers that you wear on your waistband have a variety of mechanisms, some more accurate than others. In general order of accuracy, these are accelerometer chip, accelerometer, coiled spring mechanism, and hairspring mechanism. Free pedometers given away in health promotions are often the notoriously inaccurate hairspring models and you shouldn't give up on pedometers if you tried one of those.

How Will You Wear Your Pedometer?

  • Waistband Pedometers and Pocket Pedometers: These include old-style spring mechanisms that must be be worn in a perfect vertical position to get an accurate step count. Depending on your body shape, a waistband pedometer might be tilted and not able to count steps accurately. But there are better designs that us 2-axis and 3-axis accelerometer mechanisms that can count steps accurately when tilted, carried in a pocket or worn on a lanyard. Choose a pocket pedometer or wear-anywhere model to have a choice of where to wear it. Some, such as the Fitbit Zip and Fitbit One, transmit their data to an app, while others do not.
  • Wristband Fitness Trackers: Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP popularized fitness bands and they soon captured much of the market. Now, you can get wristband activity monitors in a wide variety of styles, often with interchangeable bands so you can match your outfit or activity while still tracking your steps.
  • Pedometer Watches: Smartwatches such as the Apple Watch track your daily steps and workouts as well as perform many other functions. You won't need additional devices or to carry your phone with your constantly to use the step counting feature.
  • Pedometer Apps: Your cell phone is also counting your steps and you can check its data with a variety of built-in health functions or apps. Of course, it only counts steps if you are carrying it with you.

If you wear your pedometer to count total daily steps, choose one that is small enough and comfortable enough for all-day wear. Add a pedometer safety leash or a wristband security belt for good measure so they don't fall off and get lost. The display should be easy to read without removing the pedometer from your waistband. If the pedometer has a reset button, it should be configured so you can't accidentally reset it.

What Do You Want Your Pedometer to Do?

Total Daily Steps: The simplest pedometers only count your steps and display steps and/or distance. This may be all you need to track to keep yourself motivated towards a goal of 6,000 steps per day for health, or 10,000 steps per day for weight loss. However, some pedometers (or pedometer functions of other devices) are built for using only during workouts rather than running all day.

Workout Tracking: If you want to use your pedometer primarily to track dedicated walking workouts, you will want one with a workout feature or the ability to reset it. Some pedometers reset themselves at midnight and you can't use them only for specific workouts. But many advanced models are able to both count total daily steps and to track specific workouts.

Beyond the Count: Many pedometer models have more features. You should note which ones are most important to you when comparing models.

  • Distance estimate.
  • Calories burned estimate
  • Ability to time and track specific workouts
  • Memory to review past days
  • Clock
  • Stopwatch and exercise timer
  • Alarm
  • Speed or pace estimate
  • Goal setting and progress towards daily goal
  • Upload to computer or cell phone app
  • Pulse monitor

Pedometer Distance Accuracy

Accuracy starts with the mechanism. Accelerometers and accelerometer chips are more accurate than spring models.

To check the accuracy of your pedometer, count off 100 steps and see what the count is on the pedometer. If it is off by more than a few steps, adjust where you are wearing it. You may have to experiment with where to wear it. Sometimes moving it just an inch or two makes a big difference. For fitness bands, it makes a difference if you wear it on your dominant wrist, and often you can set that in the app.

The accuracy of the distance estimate depends on measuring your stride length and setting your stride length correctly. Some models just ask for your height and use a standard formula. If this isn't accurate for you, you may have to set it with a different height to get more accurate distance readings.

You can check the accuracy of the pedometer's distance estimate using a known distance. Use a mapping app to draw and measure a walking route and check it against your pedometer reading

Walking Speedometers/Odometers

Walking speedometers and speed-measuring apps use GPS sensors to track your speed and distance continuously—but only outdoors—and they won't work on a treadmill. These are available from Garmin and some models from Fitbit and other manufacturers include GPS-based speed and distance. Other devices may use an accelerometer sensor you wear in or on your shoe to measure this data and must be calibrated for the best accuracy. The shoe sensor models work indoors as well as outdoors and can be used on a treadmill.

Pedometers that Upload and Display Your Data

For data junkies, what could be better than a pedometer that uploaded your walking data to a computer or cell phone app and showed you graphs and charts of your activity? Fitbit, Garmin, and Jawbone all fall into this category. While many assume that everyone has a cell phone and can retrieve the data via Bluetooth, Fitbit and Garmin continue to include a USB link so you can upload wirelessly to a computer as well.

Pedometer Apps

You may not need a separate pedometer. Pedometer apps for cell phones use the phone's built-in accelerometer to count steps, or may use the phone's GPS. They vary as to whether you can use them to track total daily steps or can only be used during dedicated workouts.

Workout-tracking walking apps can use your phone's GPS and show your speed and distance continuously and track your path on a map. Using the GPS function drains the battery faster and won't work for treadmill walking. Some apps let you share your achievements with friends via social media or email.

Pedometer Walking Programs

Keeping records of your steps and/or distance can keep you on track. You can record your daily totals in any log, or get your pedometer and log through one of the pedometer walking programs offered.

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