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Report: Memo to Health Promoters: Forget the Pedometers


Pedometer use has spiked over the past few years with the popularity of health programs like 10,000 Steps. And while fitness educators tout the pedometer as a motivational tool, a new study has found older adults fear counting steps and walking longer distances may spur competition and dampen group camaraderie.

Dr. Denise Copelton of the College at Brockport, State University of New York examined why older adults participated in a hospital-sponsored walking program. Copelton joined the walking club for a five-month period. She interviewed key members of the group and the walking-club coordinator. She also interviewed the wellness center director about the club and its history.

The study findings appeared in the Sociology of Health & Illness (Vol. 32, No. 2, 2010).

Meet the Walkie Talkies

The research is based on a walking program launched in 1998. The program was part of a local hospital’s efforts to engage older adults in physical activity, following their stay at the hospital. Members of the club, dubbed the "Walkie Talkies," received a free pedometer, t-shirt, walking club manual, activity log and resistance band (that can be stretched with the legs or arms for strength training). They met three days a week. Hospital organizers encouraged the walkers to set personal fitness goals and chart their progress with pedometers.

Since its inception, the program has undergone significant changes. Today, the walking club is open to adults 50 years and older. There are about 30 members with 8 to 15 walkers participating in any given week. They range in age from 50 to 79 years – the majority women. The Walkie Talkies meet each Thursday morning in front of the hospital entrance. They walk around the perimeter of the buildings for 60 minutes and do stretching exercise for another 30 minutes. The coordinator winds up the session with a story. Today’s club members do not set goals or monitor their progress. And nobody except the walking club coordinator uses a pedometer.

Four reasons to join the club

The author identified four benefits of joining the Walkie Talkies.

1. Health benefits

Most participants said they joined the club for health reasons. "I should be doing exercise at my age. It’s good for me," Ruth said.

And Helen remarked, "I just thought if I joined a group I’d be more apt to do it more often, more regularly."

2. Camaraderie

Over and above health benefits, the researchers said members were drawn to the club for the social aspects, especially the conversation and camaraderie.

Spontaneous pairings in the group ensured a variety of walking partners. As Gary said, "I’ve walked with just about everyone in the group at one time or another and it’s always good. It always turns out to be a positive experience."

Topics of conversation ranged from cooking, knitting and vacations to television, sporting and community events. The walkers developed social ties over time, cementing their links to the group and fostering a sense of community.

Ruth summed it up this way:

As you meet people, walk with them especially, you find out more about them. Rather than just doing your exercises and going home, you walk with them, you find out more about them, so you want to know what’s happening with them. I think sometimes I come just to see what’s going on.

3. Non-competitive

The members also appreciated the club’s easy-going atmosphere. As Doris put it, "There are no demands or restrictions or pressures to do anything, and no one says walk faster . . ."

In contrast, the women perceived aerobics and other classes at local gyms to be inherently competitive. In such settings, participants felt they would be judged negatively in terms of their physical abilities, age and physique.

4. Non-hierarchical

Finally, the study found that walkers considered the use of pedometers to be incompatible with the "come as you are" ethos of the club. Simply put, they saw pedometers as symbolizing competition and the potential for hierarchy. As Helen explained: "I’ve never been competitive . . . if I’m doing something, I will do it well, but I don’t need to outdo somebody."

Give talk a chance

According to the study, health and fitness promoters see pedometers as a handy low-cost tool for measuring walking activity and monitoring fitness goals. But for walkers, talking and social enjoyment trumped health goals and physical activity. In other words, participants were attracted to the Walkie Talkies for health reasons, but a sense of camaraderie kept them coming back week after week.

Copelton concluded, "Health campaigns that structure walking as a social activity may find a more receptive audience among older adults, especially older women."