Every Step You Take: Pedometers and Health Apps

The Impact Of Health Apps

Are health apps ruining our walking mojo? Walking without a destination, simply for the sake of walking, is to me one of the most enjoyable activities in the world. When running, all I can think about is running (more to the point: good god, when can I stop running), but a walk allows me to take in the scenery, think about things, slow down and observe. Having nowhere to go is liberating. To be sure, there are people for whom running is very relaxing, but I think we can all agree walking is more pastoral.

It’s odd, then, that we have an obsession with steps- how many steps in this walk, and what does that mean in total miles? It seems almost antithetical to the pursuit. You could almost imagine it being a modern obsession, a by-product of our amazing mobile and wearable tech. It isn’t, though- for hundreds of years we’ve been obsessed with measuring how many steps we’ve taken, as we look to calculate the exact benefit of one of our most autonomic movements: the act of putting one foot in front of the other.

A real Renaissance man

It begins, as does so much else, with Leonardo da Vinci, the unconquerable brilliant polymath, who basically looked at every field of human endeavor and said “I can do that.” And he did- painting, sculpting, engineering, warfare, aeronautics, politics: you name it, he was ahead of his time with it. Among his sketches, just things he idly tossed off between creating enduring works of art, was a pedometer, a gear-based system that used a pendulum moving in tandem with a leg (see above). It’s speculated that he designed this to give cartographers a more accurate reading, though it is unclear if he ever actually developed a working one.

Hooke, line, and sinker

Robert Hooke was widely and correctly considered one of the most brilliant men of his time, if not the second-most brilliant. Unfortunately for his historical legacy, the first was Issac Newton, who more or less figured out how the universe worked, which tends to overshadow the accomplishments of others. Hooke, however, contributed massively to the field of cosmology, and was something of an inventor in his own right. Among his inventions was apparently a pedometer, which, as this charming if somewhat incomprehensible story about playing a joke on Christopher Wren indicates, was placed in the shoe or the saddle. Either one would have great use for mapmakers or for the military, to see how far they advanced in a day of marching.

Feeling Tomish

Thomas Jefferson, maybe the most brilliant American who ever lived, and one of the few who can be mentioned in the same polymathic breath as da Vinci and Hooke, also joined their ranks by either inventing his own pedometer or popularizing one he saw in Europe. Few inventions come out of wholecloth; most build upon the work of others. Regardless, Jefferson also used a pendulum system, though it was apparently elegant enough that it caught on with people not directly involved in mapmaking. For a time, they were known as Tomish Meters, “tomish” apparently meaning “That thing that Tom Jefferson did.” (e.g. “a Tomish declaration”)

I would walk 10,000 steps

But the true advent of the modern pedometer came in the 1960s, from Japan, from Dr. Yashiro Hatano. He calculated that 10,000 steps a day is approximately 20% more than the average person walks in just the course of their day, and that extra bit makes a huge difference.According to eachstepyoutake.com, probably the most comprehensive site you can find on pedometers and whose work proved invaluable for this article, “…Dr. Hatano began selling a pedometer known as “Manpo-kei” (10,000 steps meter), which soon became extremely popular in Japan due to its simplicity and motivational effectiveness.”

Wearable tech, smartphones, and the future of health

Of course, we now almost all carry around a pedometer, and so much more. Health apps measure the steps we take, what that means for calories burned, our heart rate, our breathing- basically, anything. You can sync your wearable tech up to your smartphone or tablet and get an instant reading on your health. As we’ve argued, knowledge affects behavior, and the ability to know what we need to do, and what we aren’t doing, helps motivate a lot of us to get healthy.

It’s doubtful, or at least improbable (though far from impossible) that Leonardo da Vinci anticipated what a modern smartphone could do. But he- and Hooke, and Jefferson, and certainly Dr. Hatano- all recognized that the art of measurement was an important one, and could impact human actions. Our smartphones and wearable tech are revolutionary, but they started a long time ago, when some of the great minds in history asked “how much did I walk today?”

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