How Does a Pedometer Work? A Comprehensive Guide

by Véronique Raymond
pedometer in a hand on the beach

How far do you walk every day, on average? You might be pleasantly surprised by the mileage you clock up, nipping out to the shops, strolling to school or work, and pottering around the house. There’s no denying that walking is an ideal way to elevate your fitness and health.

As an ideal mode of daily exercise, walking or hiking is not only safe but also presents a low risk of injuries compared to engaging in other physical activities. While it’s a significantly healthy and effective form of exercise, the perks of walking are rarely acknowledged, making it possibly the most underrated type of physical activity.

One foolproof way of walking more is by using a pedometer, or step counter, which counts every step you take. These devices have become very popular and are incorporated into most android, IOS, and fitness tracker devices, such as Fitbit and Apple watches. But how does a pedometer work? In this guide, we’ll delve into this commonly asked question and more. Read on!

How Does a Pedometer Work?

Let’s assume you’re tasked with building a tiny gadget that will compute the distance you walk in a day. Sounds like a tricky task, right? You might opt for a trundle wheel, surveyor’s wheel, or click-wheel. These are large wheels that you roll over the ground, and as you do so, they click every time they complete a circuit. However, muddy or rough terrain and stairs will cause a setback.

Now, let’s redefine the issue by factoring in what walking entails. Each time you walk, your body tilts to one side, and you swing a leg moving forward. Your body then shifts the other way, and you swing your other leg forward as well. Every tilt of your hips coupled with a shift of your legs counts as a step.

Assuming that every step is about the same stride length, all you need to do is count the number of steps you take per day. You’ll do so by counting the number of times your body tilts from one side to the next. You can then multiply the length of each step by the total number of steps to compute the overall you’ve walked in that day. That sums up how a pedometer works.

Types of Pedometers

Let’s discuss the different categories of pedometers:


Simple pedometers were initially mechanical and functioned similarly to pendulum clocks (with a swinging bar propelled by a slowly falling weight). While the pendulum swings back and forth, a type of see-saw lever known as an escapement flicks up and down as a gear wheel in the clock (that counts seconds) progresses by one position. Therefore, a pendulum clock defines a mechanism that counts seconds.

The initial pedometers incorporated a swinging pendulum to count steps and output the total via a rotating pointer on a dial, similar to an analog clock. Once you secure a mechanical pedometer on your waist, with each step taken, the pendulum rocks from one side to another, resulting in a gear advancing one position before shifting the hand around the dial.


Modern pedometers function similarly but are partly electronic. Once you open up one, you’ll discover a metal pendulum (a hammer with a weight on one edge) connected to an electric counting circuit via a thin spring.

Usually, the circuit is open without electric current flowing through. With every step you take, the hammer swings across and touches a metal contact right in the middle, completing the circuit and permitting current flow.

Resultantly, the circuit is energized and increases your number of steps by one. As you complete each step, the hammer rocks back again (aided by the string), and the circuit is broken, which resets the pedometer for the next step.

The pedometer displays your step count on an LCD. Most pedometers will convert the step count to an approximate distance in kilometres, miles, or the total burned calories with one touch of a button. It’s worth keeping in mind that the hammer-pendulum circuit functions in the opposite way in some pedometers. It’s usually closed, and every step makes it temporarily open.

More advanced wristband pedometers include multiple other features such as heart rate monitors, motion sensors, and tracking aerobic workouts. They function solely electronically and given that they lack moving parts, they are more durable and are accurate. These units dispense with the rocking pendulum hammer and compute your daily steps with up to three accelerometers. These refer to microchips aligned at 90-degree angles and detect changes in force with leg movement by the minute.

girls wore a bracelet looks at the pedometer

Source: Shutterstock

Pedometer Apps

Who requires an electronic pedometer when you have an android or iphone? After all, with the advent of technology, most mobile devices and smartwatches have location-tracking software that varies in precision, and you’ll discover a wealth of pedometer apps in your favourite mobile app store.

Granted, most wearable technology incorporates GPS satellite navigation to compute the distance you’ve run or walked using space satellite signals instead of the plodding counting of your steps mechanically. However, others use the accelerometer of your phone.

Most use a combination of WiFi, mobile network data, GPS, and other location services signals to deduce the number of steps you’ve taken from your changing position.

How Accurate Is a Pedometer?

It’s no secret that step counting via a pedometer is seemingly complex and scientific. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that it’s only an approximation which means not all your steps will be accurately counted, and a few false movements or jolts in the road while riding in a car, for instance, might be counted as steps you’ve taken.

Keeping that in mind, you shouldn’t take the computed steps as being 100% accurate. Instead, assume a 5% to 10% error. For a pedometer to function 100% accurately, you need to attach it to your waist rather than tuck it away in your pocket.

The reason is that a pedometer requires detecting your body’s tilting motion from one side to another for the accurate registration of every step. Most units have a belt clip included, making it a breeze to properly strap them to your waist. Some pedometers have an adjustable screw to change the tension of the swinging pendulum-hammer inside and allow it to accurately register your steps.

If you’re running, a slight adjustment might be necessary compared to brisk walking, for instance, as the length of your steps will be different.

How to Ensure a Pedometer Is Functioning Properly

To make sure your pedometer is operating as it should, follow the steps below.

  1. Clip on the device
  2. Walk 100 steps without monitoring the counter
  3. Check the recorded number of steps to check the level of accuracy. The pedometer should be 85% to 90% accurate or measure anywhere between 85 steps to 110 steps per 100 taken
  4. Some pedometers come with a sensitivity setting that grants you free rein to adjust them accordingly
  5. You can experiment by connecting it in a different place to test where it’s most accurate for you

How Many Steps Should You Take?

While wearing a pedometer, you should aim for 10,000 steps daily. That translates to about 1.5 hours of walking or 8km and tallies with the Canadian Physical Activity Guideline of 30 minutes to an hour of additional physical activity most days of the week.

If you’ve been averaging at 3,000 steps, it’s crucial to gradually work your way up to this goal and to keep in mind that 10,000 steps aren’t ideal for the elderly and those with underlying conditions. Ten thousand steps will burn 2,000 to 3,500 calories per week, depending on your body weight. Be sure to set realistic step goals for yourself when using pedometers.

Using a step tracker can be an easy way to start tracking your physical fitness and activity levels on a daily basis. A brisk walk every day can also help with weight loss, decreases your chance of chronic diseases, lower blood pressure, and even act as your own personal trainer!

How Should You Start Using a Pedometer?

Start by wearing the pedometer for three days (two working days and one day off). Compute the average of your total steps for the 3 days and gradually work your way up.

A recommended daily increase would be to aim for an additional 500 steps each day by:

  • Getting off the bus a few stops before and enjoying the walk
  • Taking the stairs as opposed to the escalator or elevator
  • Take a walk with friends rather than meet for coffee
  • Parking the car a few blocks away from your destination and walking the rest of the distance
  • Take a stroll to clear your mind while enjoying some alone time


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