How many steps should you rack up? The figure you see most often is 10,000 a day. That's a nice, round number, based on Japanese research showing that it improves fitness. But like so many one-size-fits-all solutions, those 10,000 steps may not all be necessary. "The number 10,000 has developed almost mythical proportions," says Gregory Welk, a physical-activity researcher at Iowa State University in Ames. "It's actually not yet clear at what point you start getting a benefit." In fact, if all you want is to stop gaining weight, you may need only 2,000 steps more than your normal routine—provided you also pay attention to what you eat.
At least that is the contention of James Hill, an obesity researcher at the University of Colorado in Denver. The average office worker takes about 5,000 steps a day, Hill says. Trying to double that right away may be too much too fast. He calculates that taking an extra 2,000 steps while eating 100 fewer calories a day is enough to keep most people from gaining the typical kilogram a year that comes with middle-age spread. But Hill does concede that 10,000 steps may be necessary to control Type 2 diabetes or to lose weight and keep it off.
Ready to strap on a pedometer and give it a try? A good model will set you back anywhere from $10 to $25. The brand used most often in research is the Digi-Walker by Yamax, but you don't need all the fancy distance and calorie-counter features (those measures are guesstimates at best). A no-frills pedometer is quite accurate if worn for walking, says Barbara Moore of Shape Up America! You'll get the best results if you keep the pedometer in line with what would be the crease line on a pair of trousers. But watch out: pedometers tend to overestimate how much exercise you get while cleaning the house. And it's not fair to shake it to make the counter move!