Output that counts: pedometers, sociability and the contested terrain of older adult fitness walking
Address for correspondence: Denise A. Copelton, Department of Sociology, The College at Brockport, State University of New York, 350 New Campus Dr., Brockport, New York 14420, USA
Based on five months of participant observation and interviews with members of a hospital-sponsored walking club, I explore the rejection of pedometer technology among older adult walkers. Health researchers praise pedometers as a useful tool for measuring walking activity, setting fitness goals, and charting progress towards goals. Older adult walkers, however, viewed pedometers and the monitoring they enable as anathema to walking group norms that stress sociability. I assess the differential construction of pedometers by fitness researchers, group leaders, and walkers themselves. While fitness researchers construct pedometer technology as a motivator for exercise adherence, walkers believed pedometers would create competition and hierarchy that might destroy group camaraderie. In contrast to biomedical models of health and wellness, which focus predominantly on exercise outputs like step counts, these findings suggest that sociability is an important component of health maintenance leisure activities for older adult walkers.
In this paper I examine a hospital-sponsored walking group for older adults, noting how group norms of sociability, convivial conversation, and lack of competition precluded the adoption of pedometer-measured step goals as originally envisaged by hospital organisers. I draw on social studies of science and technology and research on sociability in leisure pursuits to understand how women walkers, in particular, constructed personal and group identities that were incompatible with pedometer use, demonstrating how non-users of technology are embedded in and influenced by micro-level interactional norms. In contrast to biomedical models of health, which focus predominantly on exercise outputs like step counts, these findings suggest that sociability is an important component of health maintenance leisure activities for older adults.
US health guidelines recommend that adults engage in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week (USDHHS 1996, 2000). Walking is a low-impact, moderate-intensity activity that most can pursue throughout the lifecourse (Simonsick et al. 2005, Takamine 2001). Its non-competitive nature, lack of formal rules, and the fact that few skills are necessary to participate led health promoters to herald walking as an ideal fitness activity for older adults, inactive persons, and those with negative attitudes toward or hesitant to begin physical activity (Hultquist 2005, Simonsick et al. 2005, Takamine 2001).
Regular walking has many documented health benefits including a reduced risk of diabetes (Gregg et al. 2003), heart disease (Iwane et al. 2000, Manson et al. 2002), osteoporosis (Greendale et al. 1995), and all-cause mortality (Gregg et al. 2003). It lowers blood pressure (Albright and Thompson 2006, Iwane et al. 2000, Moreau et al. 2001), improves cognitive functioning (Weuve et al. 2004) and body image (Tucker and Mortell 1993), and maintains functional ability in older adults (Brach et al. 2003, Hamdorf and Penhall 1999, Simonsick et al. 2005).
Medical professional organisations and federal initiatives including the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health and Healthy People 2010 endorse walking as a health promoting activity, while employers encourage walking in an attempt to lower healthcare costs. No initiative has been more influential in promoting walking as a fitness activity than 10,000 steps programmes. Yet, a majority of the population still does not meet current physical activity recommendations (CDC 2003, Hughes et al. 2005). Thus, organised fitness activities and outreach efforts continue to be important conduits for increasing exercise adherence.
Pedometers and the quantification of walking
As walking has been redefined as a physical fitness activity, health promoters have placed greater emphasis on quantifying it. A pedometer is a small electronic device worn on the waistband that counts the wearer’s steps. Although popularised in the US in the 1990s, pedometer technology is not new. Thomas Jefferson invented an early pedometer between 1785-89 and sent the device to James Madison with these instructions:
Cut a little hole in the bottom of your left watch pocket, pass the hook and tape through it, and down between the breeches and drawers and fix the hook on the edge of your knee band, an inch from the knee buckle; then hook the instrument itself by a small hook on the upper edge of the watch pocket. Your tape being well adjusted in length, your double steps will be exactly counted by the instrument (Fouts 1922: 319).
Measuring hip movement, contemporary pedometers employ the same principles as Jefferson’s early version, but use a spring-mounted arm in place of Jefferson’s attached tape and digital counters instead of mechanical ones (Berlin et al. 2006). Despite design improvements, the accuracy of step counts is highly variable and depends on the sensitivity of the model used, walking speed, and user characteristics. Accuracy improves with speed (Bassett et al. 1996, Crouter et al. 2003, Schneider et al. 2004), but even the best pedometers are less reliable when used by persons with impaired gait or slower speed, characteristics more common among older walkers (Cyarto et al. 2004).
For health and fitness educators, pedometers are a convenient, low-cost, user-friendly technology that offers immediate feedback on accumulated activity levels (Croteau 2004, Croteau and Richeson 2005, Tudor-Locke 2002). Heralded as motivational tools that promote exercise adherence, pedometers have been incorporated into health promotion programmes nationwide. Most common among these are 10,000 steps programmes, which encourage individuals to walk 10,000 steps a day to maintain health. Ten thousand steps programmes originated in Japan and were imported to the US through health maintenance organisations like HealthPartners, whose trademarked ‘10,000 Steps’ has been adopted widely and earned a 2004 Innovation in Prevention Award from the US Department of Health and Human Services (Schnirring 2001). In 2005, Excellus BlueCross/BlueShield earned accolades for its walking programme (PCPFS 2005), signifying the high esteem granted to walking programmes among health promotion efforts. Mainstream news articles also encourage Americans to walk for health and use pedometers to measure progress toward step-specific goals (deSa 2001, Hellmich 2005, 2007). These programmes have widespread appeal and demonstrated success in increasing participants’ activity levels and lowering health risk factors (Croteau 2004, Croteau and Richeson 2005, Heesch et al. 2005, Hultquist 2005, Rooney et al. 2003, Schneider et al. 2006).
Pedometer-assisted walking programmes employ traditional behaviour modification techniques, including goal setting and monitoring (Dinger et al. 2005). In these programmes, step counts are the output that counts. Critics argue that a universal step goal, such as 10,000 per day, may be too low for some groups (children and active adults) and too high for others (older adults and those with sedentary lifestyles), and question the validity of programmes that promote a single target (Berlin et al. 2006, Le Masurier et al. 2003, Schneider et al. 2006, Tudor-Locke and Bassett 2004). Permitting users to set personal goals is just as effective in promoting physical activity as establishing a universal goal of 10,000 steps (Sidman et al. 2004). Since pedometers do not measure activity intensity, frequency, or duration, step counts alone cannot adequately assess whether current physical activity guidelines are being achieved (Berlin et al. 2006, Le Masurier et al. 2003). Nevertheless, pedometer-based fitness interventions remain popular even as researchers debate their utility.
Pedometer-based walking programmes’ exclusive focus on quantity of steps walked also overrides concerns about the quality of walks, especially their social quality. Do pedometers change the social experience of walking? How do walkers respond to pedometer technology in organised walking programmes? In the following sections I review relevant research in science and technology studies and sociability in leisure pursuits, and describe the ethnographic methods used.
The social construction of pedometer technology
Because step programmes require pedometers, they reconfigure walking as a technologically-mediated activity. The Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach emphasises how different social groups imbue technologies with diverse meanings (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2005, Pinch and Bijker 1984). Different groups use pedometers for particular ends and designers and consumers may view pedometers differently (Wyatt 2005). Health and fitness evaluation researchers interested in furthering evidence-based fitness programmes have an instrumental relationship to pedometers, viewing them as tools (like pulse monitors or stop watches) that provide standardised outputs to which other health indicators are correlated.
Little research has examined pedometers from the user’s perspective. A study of men’s responses to a 10,000 steps programme in Australia found that while some viewed pedometers as motivational tools, others saw them as ‘novelty trinkets’ that they would not use regularly (Burton et al. 2008). Because men and women often have different relationships to technology (Cowan 1983, Livingstone 1992, Sandelowski 1994), it is important to examine if user and non-user constructions of pedometers are gendered. For example, women are more likely to view technology as facilitating social interaction, whereas men view technology as an acceptable substitute for it (Livingstone 1992). Very little is known about women’s constructions and use of pedometers.
Other scholars have examined the domestication of technology (Lie and Sorenson 1996, Silverstone et al. 1992, Sorenson 2006, Sorenson et al. 2000). According to Sorenson et al. (2000: 240), ‘To domesticate an artifact is to negotiate its meaning and practice in a dynamic, interactive manner. This negotiation implies that technology as well as social relations are transformed’. Whether and how a technology is domesticated depends on the economy of meanings shared by the group. This moral economy, including norms and values, both affects and is affected by the domestication of technology (Silverstone et al. 1992, Silverstone 2006).
Domestication entails four inter-related processes: appropriation, objectification, incorporation and conversion (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2005, Silverstone et al. 1992, Sorenson et al. 2000). Appropriation involves the acquisition of technology, while objectification concerns its display. The display of technology objectifies the values of its users and others who identify with the technology (Silverstone et al. 1992: 22–3). Incorporation entails the technology’s use and integration into a set of daily practices. Finally, conversion refers to how a technology configures relationships between users and others, typically, through ‘status claims’ and ‘expressing a specific lifestyle’ (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2005: 15). Domestication thus involves both practical and symbolic work, including the symbolic meanings users and non-users ascribe to an object, and the consequences of these meanings for individual and group identities and for the technology’s long-term use (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2005, Wyatt 2005). It also entails a cognitive dimension, including the ‘intellectual appropriation of new knowledge’ (Sorenson et al. 2000: 240). Sociologists must attend to the symbolic meanings and practical consequences of pedometers, and to how users appropriate the new knowledge pedometers create (step counts).
Health, sociability, and older adults
Though health concerns are a typical motivation for exercise (Duncan et al. 1994, Takamine 2001), walking also offers opportunities for sociability, which serves as an incentive for continued participation (Glover et al. 2005, Stebbins 2002). I rely on Simmel’s (1950) formulation of sociability, a form of social interaction marked by a playful spirit, convivial conversation, and an egalitarian ethos to which hierarchy and competition are antithetical.
Institutions like hospitals can facilitate sociability, even when they are organised for other purposes (Cheang 2002, Hope and Havir 2002, Oldenburg 1989, Stebbins 2002). The need for safe, secure public settings is common in studies of leisure and sociability among older adults, with casinos, restaurants and clubs supplying such a context (Cheang 2002, Duncan et al. 1994, 1995, Hope and Havir 2002, Stalp et al. 2008, Yarnal 2006). Casino gambling offers older adults ‘something to do’ that is fun and entertaining, and seniors value gambling’s social rewards more highly than its financial ones (Hope and Havir 2002: 184). Older adult regulars at fast-food restaurants share food, stories and jokes, fostering a sense of community (Cheang 2002: 314). Eschewing fund raising, volunteering, and the creation of sociability for others characteristic of women’s organisations (Daniels 1985), the Red Hat Society (RHS) allows older women to enjoy sociable relations and to initiate fun for themselves (Stalp et al. 2008, Yarnal 2006).
Conversation adds a significant social element that provides positive reinforcement over and above walking’s health benefits, leads to greater enjoyment, and promotes exercise adherence (Tucker and Mortell 1993). Women are especially likely to report lack of walking companions as a deterrent to walking (Ball et al. 2001). Duncan et al. (1994) found that mall walking facilitated new social contacts, fostered a sense of community, and reduced the social isolation that sometimes follows retirement. Given that social contacts are beneficial for overall health (House et al. 1988, Klinenberg 2001, 2002), it is surprising that few studies examine the social aspects of organised walking for older adults. Most research focuses exclusively on walking’s health benefits (Hultquist 2005, Manson et al. 2002, Tucker and Mortell 1993). Walking is conspicuously absent in sociological studies of sociability (but see Ortiz 1992, Schact and Unnithan 1991), and most sociological research on walking focuses narrowly on mall walking (Duncan et al. 1994, 1995, Ortiz 1992, Schacht and Unnithan 1991).
I conducted participant observation of a hospital-sponsored walking group for adults aged 50 and over, attending weekly walks of approximately 90 minutes each from late August through to mid-December 2004 for a total of 14 separate observations. I participated in all group activities and conversed informally with members. Given the setting and activity involved, namely physical exercise, I did not take detailed notes in the field. Instead, I recorded jotted notes (Lofland and Lofland 1995) in the field and audio-notes immediately after meetings. I transcribed and expanded both sets of notes to create complete field notes for each observation. This process facilitated detailed note-taking, without it becoming obtrusive in the field.
At the time of the study, the club consisted of approximately 30 adults, with 8-15 walkers participating in any given week. Walkers’ ages ranged from 50-79 years, with a majority of women. A core of five ‘regulars’ attended weekly, including one man. Throughout my five months of participant observation, only two other men attended once each. One had been a regular member previously, but stopped attending when his wife began cancer treatment.
I conducted key informant interviews (Gilchrist and Williams 1999) with four ‘regulars’ to uncover the social and personal meanings they attached to walking with the group, and with the walking club co-ordinator and Wellness Center Director about the club, its history, and overall importance among wellness initiatives. Interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed and occurred at the health campus and members’ homes.
Pedometers and the reconfiguration of the Walkie Talkies
The Walkie Talkies began in 1998 as part of a ‘Senior Product Line’ targeting older adults at a large, non-profit community hospital. The line was terminated concurrent with the opening of a Geriatric Treatment Center, and the Walkie Talkies is the only remaining programme. Tammy, the walking club co-ordinator, explained the philosophy behind the group:
The idea was to start a [walking] club for seniors. We wanted to emphasise that fitness was important for them. We tried to emphasise overall fitness so they don’t think the only thing they have to do is walk. They also need aerobic exercise, they need to be strong, and need to do strength training to be strong (Tammy).
The walking club manual explains the importance of physical fitness for older adults, while cool-down exercises incorporate strength training.
The Walkie Talkies originally met three days a week, alternating mornings and afternoons. Low attendance led group leaders to restrict meetings to Thursday mornings two years prior to my field research. Initially, the group was structured like many popular walking initiatives. Members received a free pedometer, t-shirt, walking club manual, activity log, and resistance band (a large rubber band that can be stretched with the legs or arms for strength training). Members were encouraged to adopt personal fitness goals and chart progress with pedometers. Small prizes and social recognition were offered to those achieving their goals. However, the club underwent significant changes after inception, and when I began field research in August 2004, the emphasis on fitness goals was non-existent. Only Tammy wore a pedometer, and during my five months of participant observation she distributed only resistance bands to new walkers. Given the focus on pedometers and fitness goals common in walking programmes and initially incorporated into this one, I was surprised to find such a focus absent.
The revised format began with walkers assembling outside the main entrance of the hospital out-patient campus just prior to 10:00 AM. As walkers arrive, greetings are exchanged and conversations begun. Warm-up consists of stretching, but is also a time for introductions and announcements. The standard walking route consists of walking the perimeter of the buildings on paved sidewalks and parking lots. Participants walk at their own pace and maintain lively conversations. Walkers reassemble at the main entrance around 11:00 AM for cool-down. Walkers return at different times and more conversations are shared as walkers arrive. Cool-down consists of more conversation, stretching, and working with resistance bands, alternating weekly between legs and arms. Finally, cool-down is followed by ‘story time,’ when Tammy, the nurse-coordinator, shares a funny joke or story while leading balancing exercises, either standing on one foot or tip-toes. Walkers typically disperse immediately following story time.
Tammy explained that pedometers, step counts, and goal setting were dropped in favour of this structure:
[Monitoring goals and step counts] didn’t make any difference and seemed to turn people off more than anything…Ideally if something met more often it would make more sense to do those things (Tammy).
According to Tammy, monitoring step counts via pedometers was both a ‘turn off’ for walkers and ineffective for increasing activity levels. Nevertheless, she relies heavily on meeting frequency in her explanation for the shifting group focus and rejection of pedometers. In the following sections, I describe the moral economy of the Walkie Talkies, the group norms and values that predominated. I then discuss how this moral economy precluded the domestication of pedometers within the group.
Walking for health and camaraderie
Most walkers joined Walkie Talkies for health reasons, emphasising an age-specific need for regular exercise. Ruth explained: ‘I should be doing exercise at my age. It’s good for me’. Helen underscored the ease of walking: ‘I thought I should walk, and I can walk’. Despite walking for health, walkers had modest expectations that did not include specific fitness goals, making pedometer use unlikely. Florence was typical: ‘I don’t think I have any other expectations except getting myself back into a routine of doing something’. Joining a walking group appealed to members precisely because it required a commitment to regular exercise. Helen explained, ‘I just thought if I joined a group I’d be more apt to do it more often, more regularly’.
Although initially joining for health reasons, members cited the social aspects of the group as their primary reason for returning week after week. Though walkers’ social outlets were numerous and varied (e.g. bowling, cards and pinochle, volunteering) walkers repeatedly emphasised the positive opportunities for sociability the walking group afforded through common references to group ‘camaraderie’. Miriam explained, ‘I look forward to the camaraderie. I like the people. They’re very nice, interesting, and fun to be with’. When asked what he felt was the most beneficial aspect of the club, Gary replied, ‘the main thing is the camaraderie’. According to walkers, conversation facilitated camaraderie, while competition detracted from it.
The importance of conversation
Conversations were an important, if not the most important, component of group walks. Miriam underscored the significance of talk: ‘It’s probably more fun to walk with the group because you have someone to talk with’. Talking introduced an element of fun, helped pass the time, and gave walkers something to focus on besides exercise. Doris remarked, ‘When you walk with a group it’s easier. You can walk and talk and before you know it you’ve walked for an hour’.
Sociability was facilitated by the related practices of walking in pairs and talking. Walkers spontaneously pair up according to who is standing next to whom in warm-up, although a few walkers occasionally seek out particular partners:
It always changes, seems to anyway. And like a lot of times you do want to talk with someone specific or sometimes…they just kind of pair off. So you don’t walk with the same person usually (Helen).
Spontaneous pairing promoted variety in walking partners, creating broad social ties, as Gary notes: ‘I’ve walked with just about everyone in the group at one time or another and it’s always good. It always turns out to be a positive experience’.
Conversations provide a rationale for returning week after week, to keep up to date on the activities of group members, reinforcing group cohesion. Ruth explained:
As you meet people, walk with them especially, you find out more about them. Rather than just doing your exercises and going home, you walk with them, you find out more about them, so you want to know what’s happening with them. I think sometimes I come just to see what’s going on (Ruth).
Knowing what is happening in other members’ lives helped walkers feel connected and facilitated exercise adherence. Though they joined Walkie Talkies for health reasons, members adhered to the walking regimen for social reasons.
Topics of conversation included knitting, cooking, vacations, television, and sporting and community events, all safe topics unlikely to offend. Miriam explained, ‘A lot of times [we talk about] my travels because everybody wants to know about them…[or] getting ready for a holiday, or sometimes you talk about current events. Nothing too deep, you know. No animosity’. Not wanting to create animosity was probably the main reason politics were discussed so infrequently, despite the fact that the research occurred in a battleground state concurrent with the hotly contested 2004 US presidential election. Discussing politics or other serious matters might disrupt group harmony and sociability, thereby violating group norms.
During formal interviews, walkers highlighted the jovial nature of the group. ‘We always have a lot of laughs,’ explained Miriam. During field work, I observed several running jokes, including two concerning resistance bands. During cool-down, Tammy led exercises with the band, alternating weekly between arms and legs. Leg exercises were particularly challenging and walkers regularly attempted to convince Tammy that the week’s focus was arms. In response to Tammy’s query, ‘What are we doing this week?’ walkers regularly shouted ‘Arms!’ Tammy laughed and corrected them, and good-natured groans followed.
When work with the resistance band is complete, walkers roll it up and secure it with a string or rubber band to keep it from unravelling. It takes Fran twice as long to roll her band because she is so meticulous about rolling it tightly and uniformly. This often results in Tammy moving to other stretches before Fran has finished. ‘Oh, Fran is still rolling!’ and ‘Better hurry up Fran!’ are common jocular comments and Fran often plays along by taking extra long to finish, or by laughingly pointing out to Tammy that she is still rolling. Such good-natured joking, especially when done at the expense of another, exemplifies the camaraderie and sociability within the group. Fran never appeared hurt by jokes at her expense, and willingly participated in the jovial exchanges.
Group activities, including warm-up, walking, cool-down, and story time were ripe for the creation of good times. Lively conversation and good-natured joking were interwoven throughout these activities, highlighting the prominent position of sociability within the moral economy of the group. In fact, sociability trumped physical activity and the goal of walking for health. Walking merely provided a context or excuse for enjoying sociable relations and pedometers seemed out of place in such a context.
Competition and hierarchy as threats to sociability
Walkers overwhelmingly emphasised the non-competitive and non-hierarchical nature of the group, which had direct implications for pedometer use. Concern with step counts, walking greater distances, or walking faster might put unnecessary pressure on members, create hierarchies, and challenge group norms and values. Miriam highlights the group’s pressure-free atmosphere as an attractive characteristic: ‘You can just come and do your own thing and enjoy it without being pressured. I think that’s one reason it’s successful’. Doris explained, ‘There are no demands or restrictions or pressures to do anything, and no one says walk faster...And everybody’s strictly on their own as to setting their pace’. Helen explained that stopping and resting was perfectly acceptable:
Sometimes some of the girls won’t walk the whole hour. They’ll do part of it and then sit down, which is fine. I mean, that’s why I like it because if you’re not feeling like walking an hour you can rest a bit…It’s not a negative thing if you want to stop (Helen).
One morning Ruth and Ethel, who had been walking a few yards in front of me, stopped and sat on a bench near the sidewalk. Thinking one of them might be injured, I asked, ‘Is everything OK?’‘Oh, we just stopped to talk,’ Ethel replied, ‘We’re OK’.
‘Doing their own thing’ aligned with many walkers’ non-competitive sense of self. Helen explained, ‘I’ve never been competitive… if I’m doing something, I will do it well, but I don’t need to outdo somebody’. According to walkers, the club’s success derived from its non-competitive structure, which prevented the formation of hierarchies based on who could ‘outdo’ whom. Helen continued,
They don’t expect you to do some of the exercises if you don’t feel like you are able to. It’s not like you must do what the group does, like you see some of these groups. I couldn’t do that. No, I don’t want to do that either (Helen).
Monitoring step counts appears counter to the preservation of this non-competitive, non-hierarchical culture.
Many walkers perceived aerobics and other classes at local gyms as inherently competitive and thus culturally distinct from the moral economy prevalent within the Walkie Talkies. Only one walker, Gary (also the only regular male participant), actually belonged to a gym. Women walkers, in particular, were acutely aware of how they might be judged negatively at gyms, in terms of their physical abilities, age, and physique. Unlike mall walking and gyms, which are open to persons of any age, the age-restricted environment of the Walkie Talkies limits the extent to which women members would be judged negatively in comparison to younger persons:
I like to swim, and I haven’t found a place yet I feel I can comfortably swim. I don’t look too great in a bathing suit anymore and I’m trying to find places that have just my age group (Fran).
I don’t have to wear cute little outfits to get here, you know (laughs)…I would be uncomfortable if I had to wear certain things, whereas here we can just come as we are…And I wouldn’t be comfortable with you know a 35-year-old trotting around (Helen).
Age-restricted fitness activities such as the Walkie Talkies may be especially appealing to older women who desire to limit competition and hierarchy based on age, ability, body size, and appearance. In particular, the Walkie Talkies provides older women with a safe space unfettered by the ageist assumptions of worth and value that equate goodness with youth, youth with feminine beauty, and that permeate the moral economy of many contemporary social spaces, including fitness centres.
The club’s non-competitive nature was also reflected in regulars’ responses to my question concerning what information would be important for newcomers. Gary stressed, ‘I think it’s important to realise…that you should only do what your body allows you to do. Don’t try to overdo it or compete with anybody else in the club, because that’s not what it’s all about. We’re here to just enjoy ourselves and to get some physical activity’. Gary’s statement is revealing in that he places social enjoyment before physical activity. Like other walkers, despite joining the group for health reasons, the social enjoyment of walking became more paramount over time. In fact, Gary emphasised repeatedly that the health benefits were secondary to the social aspects of the club: ‘I still enjoy the walking, but I would probably continue to come even if I didn’t need the walking’. Clearly, for members, walking is not merely about health maintenance. While health promoters typically treat walking as an instrumental health-directed activity, for walkers themselves, it was a sociable activity pursued principally for enjoyment and secondarily for health.
The moral economy and the failure to domesticate pedometers
Having detailed the norms and values prevalent within the Walkie Talkies, I explore how this moral economy prevented the domestication of pedometers. The emphasis on sociable interactions, already well established when my field research began, was probably the main reason walkers rejected pedometers, but embraced resistance bands. Wearing a pedometer, logging steps, and measuring progress toward fitness goals would put pressure on group members to walk faster and for greater distances, and create hierarchies among them. Women, in particular, were especially uninterested in anything that might introduce disharmony into the group. Technology that was not associated with these negative qualities was domesticated, and resistance bands continued to be used collectively, as part of the cool-down ritual regimen.
Even though pedometers count less accurately the steps of slower walkers, and the models distributed were less sophisticated than those recommended in fitness research, none (including Tammy) mentioned pedometer inadequacy as a reason for non-use. Pedometers were so insignificant that, despite prompting in conversations and interviews, most walkers either could not or would not expand beyond short explanations. The following excerpt from Dorothy’s interview is typical:
DC: Did you receive a pedometer when you joined the group?
DC: Have you ever used it?
D: No, no I haven’t.
DC: Tell me why not.
D: I don’t know, I just never did.
DC: Is there a particular reason?
D: No, I just never did.
Clearly, pedometers are not a high priority of the Walkie Talkies, and even when asked directly about them, participants had little, if anything, to say. Thus, the discussion that follows relies less on walkers’ self-reports, and instead draws heavily from my interpretation of how the observed moral economy of the group impacted on the domestication process.
Because they were no longer being distributed, walkers who had been members of the group longer were more likely to have received a pedometer when they joined. For some, the appropriation of the technology occurred at the point they joined. For the relative newcomers, joining the walking group and acquiring a pedometer constitute separate acts, and none that I spoke with elected to purchase one or considered doing so.
Among those who received free pedometers, none but Tammy, the nurse-coordinator, brought them to walks. Thus, members failed to objectify or display pedometers within the group, which also meant none used or incorporated pedometers into the walking routine. For Tammy, her status as leader was sufficient to explain her alignment with pedometers. When Tammy was absent, another nurse filled in. Not as familiar with warm-up and cool-down exercises, she did fewer stretches and less resistance band work, which some attributed to her inability to complete the exercises physically. Miriam explained, ‘She doesn’t know [the exercises] and I don’t think she’s physically up to doing some of them’. By contrast, members viewed Tammy as physically fit and readily capable of completing all exercises, which they considered necessary attributes in a co-ordinator. Her pedometer use was therefore interpreted in light of her co-ordinator position and fitness level, which prevented others from perceiving her as overly competitive. Importantly, physical fitness and the ability to complete all exercises were not necessary attributes of walkers themselves.
Because women walkers saw themselves as non-competitive, wearing a pedometer and monitoring step counts within the group might be perceived as attempting to outperform others. Not only would this violate group norms, it would also conflict with walkers’ own identity construction. Unlike basketballs, tennis rackets or resistance bands, pedometers are not just ‘used’; they are also worn. Incorporating the device onto one’s person (part of its objectification), is simultaneously a very intimate and social act that contributes to one’s symbolic presentation of self. At the very least, wearing a pedometer indicates to others that the user is monitoring walking activity via step counts. Because women walkers construed competition negatively, they may have been especially unwilling to wear a pedometer for fear that others would assume they were more concerned with ‘out-stepping’ others than with maintaining sociable relations. Pedometer non-use was how members expressed lifestyles and claimed statuses consistent with the moral economy of the group.
Pedometers symbolise competition and a potential for hierarchy that is contrary to both sociable group relations and women walkers’ sense of self. This symbolic dimension had the practical implication of preventing widespread adoption of pedometers. On a cognitive level, since most walkers were unaware of their step counts, there was no opportunity to reflect on this knowledge. Only Gary used his pedometer ‘occasion[ally],’ mostly because he found it ‘interesting’ to know how many steps he took in various activities. Gary’s response is consistent with prior research indicating that men treat pedometers as ‘trinkets’ and step counts as interesting, but inconsequential, data (Burton et al. 2008). Significantly, Gary never wore his pedometer at group walks, further underscoring how the moral economy of the group precluded pedometer domestication within it.
In regard to pedometers then, group members conformed to a culture of non-use. Yet group norms did not prohibit domesticating all technology, as walkers did use resistance bands during cool-down exercises. While one technology is more ‘low tech’ than the other, walkers’ resistance to the relatively ‘higher tech’ pedometer and acceptance of the comparatively ‘lower tech’ resistance band should not be ascribed to simplistic and ageist explanations like technophobia among older adults. Field research and interviews in walkers’ homes revealed that walkers domesticated a variety of technologies in their personal lives, including household technology (i.e. microwaves, answering machines) and other fitness technologies (i.e. stair climbers, exercise bikes).
Unlike pedometers, whose use was no longer overtly encouraged by Tammy, resistance bands were, and if a walker forgot his or her band, Tammy would loan them one. Importantly, walkers did not construe the band negatively, only particular uses of it. Walkers only resisted using the bands for leg work, as evidenced by members’ weekly attempts to convince Tammy to lead arm instead of leg exercises. Significantly, while one could count stretches manually, no one did, and, unlike pedometers, successfully using a resistance band does not require it. Walkers did as many repetitions as they were able during the two to three minutes allotted for each stretch, and Tammy never counted aloud as she performed stretches in an attempt to co-ordinate or quantify walkers’ movements. As with walking, stretches were completed at walkers’ own pace, with some pausing to rest, especially during the more difficult leg exercises. Despite their association with physically challenging stretches, walkers did not imbue resistance bands with the same negative associations they attributed to pedometers. Bands did not promote quantifying exercise outputs, foster competition, or create hierarchies. Instead, by making resistance bands the focus of regular jokes, they became a means for furthering sociability within the group. The disparate symbolic meanings of the two technologies point to the significance of micro-interactional norms for the domestication of technology within a given group.
Most contemporary walking programmes quantify walking with pedometers, set target step counts, and monitor progress towards that target. However, Walkie Talkies members expressed little interest in pedometers, step counts, and fitness targets. This case study reveals the central function of the club for most walkers was less about health promotion and more about building and maintaining social capital. For group leaders and fitness promoters, walking and steps are what count, but for walkers, talking and sociability count more. These differing priorities highlight the contested terrain of older adult fitness walking.
Organised walking was meaningful to participants because it facilitated pleasurable interactions that most referred to as camaraderie. Though walkers were motivated to join the club by health concerns, it was the sociability of the group that mattered for continued participation. The non-competitive nature of the club precluded the formation of hierarchies based on speed or step counts, and the ‘come as you are’ ethos reassured women walkers, in particular, that status distinctions common in other fitness activities would not arise in the Walkie Talkies. Time and again, walkers disparaged the perceived competitiveness of health clubs, aerobics classes, and gyms. Within this moral economy, pedometers, which quantify walking, permit hierarchies based on step counts and symbolise competition, appeared antithetical to group norms.
Although based on a small qualitative study, these findings suggest that health campaigns that structure walking as a social activity may find a more receptive audience among older adults, especially older women. While medical sociologists have documented that social connections contribute to health maintenance (House et al. 1988, Klinenberg 2001, 2002), my research goes one step further by demonstrating the importance of sociability in leisure pursuits for exercise adherence and health maintenance. Similar to casino gambling, Red Hat Society membership, and frequenting fast-food restaurants, exercise, for the older adult participants in this study, was really about having fun in an environment free of ageism, hierarchy and competition. If the non-competitive nature of walking is what attracts older adults to it, especially older women, then 10,000 steps programmes, with their exclusive focus on step counts, may be counterproductive. Instead of focusing on quantifiable exercise outputs, health and fitness researchers should pay greater attention to the social process of exercise. Outreach efforts that highlight the positive opportunities for sociability found through organised fitness activities such as group walking, may be more effective for recruiting older adults to these and similar programmes.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2006 meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers, and Joan Spade, Marybeth Stalp and Gayle Sulik for their insightful and constructive feedback on this article.