Investing about $20 in a pedometer pays big dividends, according to researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Much to my surprise, these little devices were shown to increase physical activity by just over 2,000 steps, or about one mile of walking per day,” says lead author Dena Bravata, MD, MS.Dr. Bravata and her team analyzed 26 trials involving 2,767 participants with a mean age of 49. Most (85%) were women (JAMA. 2007;298:2296-2304).

Overall, pedometer users increased their physical activity by 27%, “which is really astounding,” Dr. Bravata observes. In eight randomized controlled trials, pedometer users took approximately 2,500 more steps per day than control participants. In 18 observational studies, they walked an additional 2,183 steps over baseline.

But getting the gadget was not enough. Setting a goal—whether the 10,000 steps per day recommended by Shape Up America and other organizations, or some lesser personal mark—was a key predictor of increased activity. So was keeping a step diary.

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“People don’t always achieve it, but just having a goal seems to help them stay motivated and improve their physical activity,” Dr. Bravata notes.