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Leonardo da Vinci never anticipated the modern American couch potato, but his original sketchings for a device to measure human motion have been turned into a trendy tool aimed at getting Americans off their duffs. The pedometer is a small gadget that clips onto your waistband and counts steps. The recommended daily target is 10,000 steps. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Pedometers, also known as step counters, have hit the big time. Fitness gurus sell them, the American Diabetes Association promotes them and everyone from cereal makers to McDonald's and Coca-Cola hand them out as freebies. Coke's Robin Flipsie(ph) gave away a few thousand at a recent fitness fair sponsored by the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

Ms. ROBIN FLIPSIE (Coca-Cola): It's a very simple model. You can reset it back to zero by pushing a button and then you clip it on your waistband and start moving. And is it accurate? It's an accurate measurement of movement, not of actual stride length or step...

AUBREY: So it may not be precise?

Ms. FLIPSIE: Exactly.

AUBREY: So much for strict accounting. Research shows the cheap, freebie pedometers can miscount by 25 percent or more. Expensive models can be quite accurate, but first back to the goal of 10,000 steps.

Ms. MELISSA JOHNSON (Executive Director, President's Council on Physical Fitness): Ten thousand steps is a phenomenal goal for people to shoot for. In essence it's really equivalent to about five miles.

AUBREY: Melissa Johnson is the executive director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. She says 10,000 step challenges are used around the country by businesses, universities and health providers as a way to motivate people. The idea, she explained, was imported from Asia.

Ms. JOHNSON: It came from a study actually from Japan, the 10,000 steps, and people have just adopted it here in the United States. And it really is a good goal and there is scientific evidence behind it actually.

AUBREY: People have told me about a study from Japan, but I can't find it. Do you know who might have the citation?

Ms. JOHNSON: We could find that for you.

AUBREY: Yeah.

But what the president's council sent our way actually tells a different story. Turns out that the advent of 10,000 steps in Japan was not based on any scientific research pointing to health benefits of that particular distance, but according to Arizona State researcher Catrine Tudor-Locke, it was the result of a marketing campaign in Japan in the 1970s.

Ms. CATRINE TUDOR-LOCKE (Arizona State Researcher): A pedometer manufacturing company came up with the slogan and it kind of stuck and everybody went with that.

AUBREY: Japanese fitness researcher Yosheri Hataki(ph) says the concept remains wildly popular.

Mr. YOSHERI HATAKI (Japanese Fitness Researcher): Nowadays, everybody in Japan knows 10,000 steps. Whether this is scientifically true or not, everybody has the same idea: `Ten thousand, oh, yeah, 10,000 steps.'

AUBREY: As the concept has taken off in the US, American researchers have examined whether the goal of 10,000 steps makes sense. David Bassett is a professor at the University of Tennessee.

Professor DAVID BASSETT (University of Tennessee): We do have good cross-sectional studies showing that people who walk 10,000 steps per day are leaner and have lower blood pressure than those who walk less.

AUBREY: After all, common sense tells us that when it comes to exercise, more is better. Ten thousand strides equates to about 300 burned calories for a person of average metabolism. But for older Americans who are inactive or for people who have complications such as diabetes, the recommendation is to start with a goal of 4,000 to 6,000. Physician Jim Hill is director of America On the Move, an organization that helps groups get started.

Dr. JIM HILL (Director, America On the Move): We see a lot of people that are getting 2,000 and 3,000 steps per day and even a small increase in those people is going to be helpful. The key is, you get credit for just doing any amount more.

AUBREY: Take 51-year-old nurse Priscilla Appleby(ph), whose only source of exercise has been walking to and from her car. She's just enrolled in a 10,000 steps program sponsored by her employer, the University of Maryland Medical Center, and her goal is to lose weight. The first change she's made is to take the stairs down instead of using the elevator.

We just walked down three flights. How do you feel?

Ms. PRISCILLA APPLEBY (University of Maryland Medical Center): I'm not too bad as far as getting winded with that. If I increase my pace, then I can feel that. If I'm trying to do a faster walk, I can feel that.

AUBREY: Some researchers challenge the wisdom of 10,000 steps. The criticism is that people who simply meander about all day adding steps here and there are burning extra calories, but researcher David Bassett says they're not necessarily getting rigorous exercise that protects the heart.

Prof. BASSETT: That's what's controversial. I mean, we believe that that would have benefit for weight control, but if it's not done at a moderate intensity, it may or may not be beneficial for cardio protection.

AUBREY: Lisa Aiken, another participant in the University of Maryland walking program, has been wearing her pedometer for about two weeks. Last Sunday, she skipped her normal 45-minute brisk walk in favor of gardening and cleaning.

Ms. LISA AIKEN: Scrubbing the rugs out of the car and, you know, weeding.

AUBREY: Turns out, according to her pedometer, that housework can be as active as a walk.

Ms. AIKEN: It was like 20 steps exactly different from Sunday to Monday.

AUBREY: For Aiken, the pedometer could end up justifying housework over rigorous exercise, so it boils down to this, an unresolved question: Does the pedometer and the 10,000 step craze give too much credit for too little effort, or will an exacting empirical read of footsteps motivate people to reach new heights? Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: For a list that ranks pedometers against each other, you can visit npr.org.

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