How to Get the Most out of Your Fitness Tracker
Lisa Cadmus-Bertram, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Kinesiology
Over the past several years, fitness trackers and activity tracking has exploded onto the market. But are these fitness devices accurate for measuring your activity? And will they help you live a healthier lifestyle? The answer to both questions is generally yes. Of course, no fitness tracker can measure all activities with 100% accuracy, but the reality is that most of us are pretty bad at estimating our own activity level – especially for things like grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, or walking up stairs. Research shows that the most popular models of fitness bands do a good enough job at measuring steps and activity to be helpful for most users.
Behavioral scientists also know that the things fitness trackers are designed to do – provide feedback about your activity level, encourage you to set and update goals – are the same techniques that have been shown to be successful for adopting healthy lifestyle habits.
All of the research shows that it is important to use your fitness tracker effectively to help improve your health and fitness. So how do you get started? Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your fitness tracker.
- Choose the right fitness device. The fitness tracker market is flooded with devices from brands like Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, and others. You can buy a simple clip-on tracker, a top-of-the-line fitness watch, or anything in between. How do you know what to choose? For most people, the most important tracking features are the very basic ones included in every model – like step counting or minutes of activity. So if increasing your overall activity is your main goal, you can do very well with a low-cost tracker. Step up to more expensive models as they suit your needs, preferences, and budget. These trackers will usually include heart rate monitoring, tracking sleep, and may also include GPS.
- Start gradually. Getting a new fitness tracker can be exciting, especially if it’s your first one. Beware of the temptation to set too many goals at once, or goals that are too difficult. Instead, spend at least a week just wearing your activity tracker, understanding the feedback, and getting used to the app or website. Pay attention to your starting point. How many steps do you take per day? How many minutes of activity do you get? How much sleep? Then choose just one or two metrics to start with and set easily achievable goals based on your starting point. For example, most trackers use a default step goal of 10,000 per day. That’s a good general guideline for a healthy adult, but it’s not a good place to start unless you’re already pretty close to that number. Instead, shoot for 500 or 1,000 more steps per day than where you are now. The idea is to set yourself up to succeed early and often. Reach your easy goals, then increase them steadily until you reach your longer-term lifestyle goals.
- Check in regularly. Here’s the most important part! A fitness tracker isn’t a “set it and forget it” device. In order to benefit, you need to interact with your device and/or the app throughout each day. This is super easy and quick. Just glance at the tracker a few times to get a sense of whether you’re on track for the day. Spend 1-2 minutes checking out your results on the app before you go to bed. Update your goals every week, month, or as appropriate. And create a good routine for keeping your device’s battery charged. You can charge it overnight once a week, or just pop it on the charger when you take a shower.
- Make it social. Exercising with a friend, relative, neighbor, or co-worker can be a great way to enjoy socializing while improving your health! Trackers offer a variety of other ways that you can use the fun of social relationships to help you achieve your lifestyle goals. For example, if you find competition to be motivating, some trackers will allow you to add your friends and compare progress during each week. Also look for community forums – there are a lot – where you can share encouragement and tips with a group of people whose situation or interests are similar to your own.
- Expect the unexpected. The flu. Travel. A major work deadline. Life happens, and the reality is that even the most hardcore exercisers experience occasional lapses. Try to plan ahead the best you can, but when you do fall off track, don’t beat yourself up. The most important thing is to quickly recognize what’s happened, forgive yourself, and get back on the horse quickly.