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Using pedometers to assess physical activity participation levels

by Jacalyn Lea Lund, PhD, and Mary Fortman Kirk, PhD

In recent years, the electronic pedometer, a small device that counts the number of steps taken by the wearer, has emerged as a high-tech tool to motivate students and track their physical activity over a specified period of time. This use of the pedometer is based on a recommendation endorsed by the U.S. surgeon general (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1996) that “individuals minimally strive to accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity activity (like a brisk walk) on most if not all days of the week” (President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports 2007). Pedometers are affordable (US$10 to US$30 per unit), and the data they collect tend to correlate closely with data collected by means of more sophisticated and expensive tools (accelerometers) used in research.


A universal activity goal of 10,000 steps per day has been identified (President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports 2007), although research is needed to determine realistic goals by age level. Rowlands, Eston, and Ingledew (1999) determined in their research that the 10,000-step goal may be too low for children of ages 8 to 10, as the subject in their study averaged between 12,000 and 16,000 steps per day. Another study, this one focused on 600 U.S. adolescents (Wilde 2002), suggests that the 10,000-step goal may also be too low for that age group; participants in that study averaged 11,000 to 12,000 steps per day. Collectively, research indicates that 3,100 to 4,000 pedometer steps may be equivalent to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity walking. With all this in mind, it is recommended that, instead of using a universal goal (e.g., 10,000 steps) that is widely accepted but lacks scientific evidence, individuals would be better served if they “personalize step goals [after] having considered baseline values, specific health goals, and sustainability of the goal in everyday living” (Tudor-Locke 2002).


Many teachers have used pedometers to motivate students to increase their daily physical activity and track their data in order to support self-assessment with an eye toward personal goals. This approach provides one way to assess students in relation to NASPE’s standard 3 (“Participates regularly in physical activity”; National Association for Sport and Physical Education 2005). The teacher explains to students how to use the pedometer, what it is measuring and how, why regular physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and what goals are recommended for physical activity. Students then establish a baseline of physical activity for a few days, set a realistic goal to increase their participation (i.e., the number of steps per day), begin a physical activity program (a walking program) for an extended period (e.g., the length of the unit or semester), and keep a log of their steps per day so that they can assess their progress toward established goals. In Pedometer Power, Pangrazi, Beighle, and Sidman (2007) provide ideas for learning activities using pedometers to track physical activity, which could be incorporated by teachers into individual lessons and assessments.


The difficulty in using this form of assessment lies in the fact that it may not be financially feasible for the physical education program to provide a pedometer for each student over a sustained period of time. Teachers may need to secure a set of pedometers for one class and spread the use of the pedometers across classes during the year, or assign a pedometer to two partners who share the use. Given this barrier, it may be more realistic to introduce students to ways in which the pedometer can be used to motivate oneself, set participation goals, and track increased physical activity; this approach may encourage students to secure their own pedometer in order to continue the program. We suggest that teachers secure grants, seek funds from the school PTA, or find other ways to secure funds to purchase an adequate number of pedometers so that each of their students have one to use for the unit. The use of pedometers can be a very useful tool to motivate students to set goals, increase their physical activity, and measure their level of participation.

This is an excerpt from Performance-Based Assessment for Middle and High School Physical Education, Second Edition.

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