By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online Magazine
It's the size of a matchbox, costs less than a tenner and experts hope it could solve Britain's health crisis. So how did a week using a pedometer - a device which counts one's steps - change my lifestyle?
I paid £7.99 for a gadget that could succeed where multi-million-pound campaigns have failed - in shaking us Brits out of our sedentary lifestyles.
Time and again we're told we're getting fatter, lazier and more diseased, a message likely to be repeated at this week's National Obesity Forum. But there are small signs the tide is turning.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) says 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) can give you a healthy heart and reduce body fat. And thanks partly to pedometer promotions by McDonald's and Kellogg's, thousands more people are seeing how they measure up.
Even the BHF sold out of pedometers, also known as stepometers, this year.
There has never been so much interest in promoting exercise, says Len Almond, director of the BHF national centre for physical education, who thinks counting steps is the key.
"If pedometers stimulate people to walk more frequently, that would be fantastic and could make a real difference to the nation's health."
Clipped to my belt, it gave me a feeling of great self-importance - like a New Labour MP kitted out with his pager - and I fancied my chances racking up a high step count. But my compact companion packed a potent weapon - a huge dose of reality.
Only three out of 10 people do enough exercise but eight out of 10 think they do
10,000 steps equals about five miles
Most of us only walk 4,500 steps a day
In 1975, we walked 255 miles a year, now 192 miles
If present habits continue, by 2010 one in four people will not fit in a standard office chair
37% of coronary heart disease deaths are related to inactivity, compared to 19% related to smoking
Source: British Heart Foundation
After a couple of days of walking a feeble 6,000 steps, I felt hugely dispirited, not to mention deluded, and resolved to change my routine.
Part of the problem was that my commute to work was such a great example of integrated transport. The tram-train-Tube combination would make John Prescott glow with pride but it did my step count no good at all.
My usual journey to work earned me 2,500 each way. But leaving home five minutes earlier and forgoing the tram bumped up the total by another 500.
Similarly, I shunned the lifts at work to walk up seven flights of stairs - 150 hard-earned steps left me panting as I settled down at my desk.
Buoyed by this progress, my relationship with the new toy developed into an obsession. Every distance I envisaged in steps and my competitiveness pushed me towards a higher score every day day.
Apparently I was in distinguished company, of sorts - the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping used to count his steps daily.
I began to notice easy ways to keep my little friend ticking over: a tea-run or pacing the station platform.
There's also plenty of step potential in the home. Making breakfast earned me 200 steps, over-zealous housework which sent me to the four corners of my small flat helped too.
But I felt like a cheat. I mean, are all steps an exercise or are some more valuable than others? Good question, says Mr Almond, who claims a chef got 30,000 steps a day just from walking round his kitchen.
The 10,000 daily target should include 30 minutes of proper walking each day, he says.
THE 10,000-STEP CHALLENGE
If 10,000 seems too high, the BHF recommends trying to increase steps by 10%
Divide the day into three parts and try to include a walk in each part
Park the car a ten-minute walk from your destination
The upsurge of use in pedometers has come mostly from women aged over 40
GPs have prescribed them to patients in a pilot scheme which could go nationwide
By the end of the working week I was averaging 8,000 steps a day - impressive, but still 2,000 short of the target. I wished I had a dog to walk, then remembered I did have a new pet, of sorts.
So, on Saturday, I went for a bout of retail and pedometer therapy, which worked a treat and helped me to 9,200. But I saved my best for Sunday, a good, old-fashioned walk just for the sake of it.
It was the only day I exceeded 10,000 and it taught me a valuable lesson. Increased walking can easily be built into your daily routine but to reach the daily 10,000-step advisory, you have to set aside extra time.
Giving up the lift and escalator helps
So will these habits remain? Research by the Countryside Agency, which launched a Walking For Health initiative four years ago, suggests it usually does.
It found that half of a sample of people who began using pedometers two years ago are still using them. And 93% say they are still walking more as a result.
I can see why. The step counts are so fixed in my head that guilt may drive me on long after my pedometer has retired.
HOW A PEDOMETER WORKS
Pedometers vary in price and quality but most have a digital display which tells you how many steps you've taken
The impact of every forward or downward movement causes a hammer to hit a sensor which activates the counter
The counter can be reset at the end of the day although more advanced pedometers can record each day's total and give a running total or an average reading for the week
Some have a way of adjusting their sensitivity to suit the individual