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What’s The Next Step For Step Trackers?

ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

Since a step-counting craze emerged in Japan in the 1960s, we’ve been trying to walk our way to fitness.

Picking up where old-school pedometers left off, fitness-tracking gadgets and apps have made step-counting a mainstay. And updates to our smartphones’ hardware and software are turning step-counting into a basic feature of mobile platforms, rather than an add-on.

I’m just not sure where all this step-counting is leading—save to an overload of apps. There’s Human, Moves, Steps, and dozens if not hundreds of others. None seem to be winning the battle for the top of the app-store rankings.

Time For The Next Step

Renato Valdés Olmos, the cofounder of Human, tells me that the second version of his app, which rolls out today, will track far more than steps. Using just your phone’s sensors, it will track gym workouts, dancing, or bustling around the office. All of that will count toward’s Human’s goal of having its users move at least 30 minutes a day. That’s an improvement over the first version of the Human app, which could only detect running, biking, or walking.

Step-tracking apps on phones will replace first-generation fitness wearables.

Even the first version of Human, he says, was effective in getting users to be more active, raising movement levels by 40%. That suggests step-counting apps may be more effective than old-school pedometers, which raised activity by 20% in an oft-cited Stanford study

But even Valdés Olmos concedes that’s not enough: “What comes after the Daily 30?”

The Battle Of The Budge

The problem is that I suspect counting steps alone is not enough to bring about the kind of health improvements that people find inspiring. Valdés Olmos, for example, worked out two hours a day to drop 144 pounds. His advice on how to do it: “Become disciplined. Become super disciplined.” My own experience in losing 83 pounds was similar.

Getting off the couch is always a good first step. But it doesn’t go far enough to fixing the fitness gap we have in the United States (and, increasingly, around the world). For many seriously overweight and underexercised people, it will take far more than 10,000 steps a day to go from unhealthy to healthy.

Technologically, it’s clear that step-counting is a pretty basic commodity function that our phones can handle. It’s like telling time. New apps and gadgets will have to measure our movement in a more sophisticated manner. They must also develop the behavioral cues that push us past 10,000 steps and into more taxing (and rewarding) physical activity. That’s not going to be easy. But we’re going to have to count on inventors like Valdés Olmos to figure it out.

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