"Allowing a person to see how active or inactive they are makes them want to make changes," she tells WebMD.
Step-counting programs are catching on because research has found that people can get health benefits from physical activity even if it isn't done all at once, or at any particular pace, says Susan Johnston, vice president and director of education and certification at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas.
Some of these programs encourage participants to aim for a specific number of steps per day. For example, Shape Up America, an organization founded by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, has the 10,000 Step Program. Its premise is that walking about 10,000 steps (approximately 5 miles) a day is the optimum figure for managing your weight.
That figure may sound daunting, Johnson says, but consider this: "Most people get 3,000 to 5,000 steps a day just being sedentary. You get half of it just living." As for the rest, you can increase your distance gradually, in small increments, as your health improves.
Other groups forego specific numbers of steps in favor of having people make more modest increases in their activity levels. Hill and his colleagues created Colorado on the Move, a community-based pedometer program designed to get people to add steps to their day without making big lifestyle changes.
Taking extra steps can take off weight
But can these extra steps really help people walk away the pounds, even if they're not breaking a sweat?
"Yes, they can," says Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. "Because in comparison to what they've been doing in the past, it quite possibly can create a caloric deficit -- as long as they don't increase their eating."
For example, he says, "if adding steps allows you to burn an extra 300 calories a day, every 10 to 15 days, that's a pound."
Even expending an extra 100 calories a day -- the equivalent of walking one mile or 2,000 steps -- will take 10 pounds off in a year, says Lisa Cooper, fitness director of the Little Rock Athletic Club in Little Rock, Ark.