Are you getting the most out of your fitness tracker?

Heart Rate Monitor

Fitness trackers, also known as activity monitors, are here to stay. Everyone from professional athletes to grandmas are wearing them, all in an effort to improve health and fitness. But, the big question for the average exerciser is, do they actually do that? Is your health and fitness improved by using a fitness tracker?

I would imagine that the answers are as varied as the users, but I have a feeling that there are more people who wear one and pay little attention to the tracker’s data, than those who actually pay attention and then make changes to their activity or nutrition. If my hypothesis is true, maybe this means we need to look at activity trackers as more than just a bracelet.  We need to understand what is the best way to use these monitors and what kind of data is useful. Most importantly, do they accurately portray your daily activity?

What started my inquiry into fitness trackers was, of course, self-serving.  I was researching activity monitors as I wanted one for Christmas.  Santa brought me a Polar A300 activity watch and I have been using it faithfully ever since.  I like the big watch face of the A300.  I am a watch wearer anyway, but I wear glasses for reading, so having an easily readable monitor and watch was a #1 priority for me.  One of the biggest problems I have with these devices is how teeny tiny the LED writing is.  Keep this in consideration when you purchase a monitor. Do you want to be able to read data throughout your day?  If so, the letters and numbers better be readable for you.

My monitor has an indicator bar which fills up as I proceed with my activity during the day. I find this extremely motivating, or at least have so for the last 3 months! This motivation may not last. Several clients who have “Fitbits” told me that, eventually, you ignore the buzz of the monitor or stop looking at the activity indicator. They have become adapted to the tracker, and it no longer motivates them. The honeymoon is over.  Because of this adaptation, at some point, it may be worthwhile to remove the monitor and use a different way to track your activity. Give yourself a break from it if you no longer are willing to act on the data.

Fitness trackers can be as simple as a pedometer, or as complex as a GPS tracking $400 wrist computer. Before buying an activity monitor, think about what you want it for.  Get specific. Don’t get caught up in bells and whistles. Do you really want to get emails, phone calls and texts on your Dick Tracy wristwatch? Maybe that’s too much technology? It is for me.

A basic pedometer can cost as little as $30 and is good for step tracking and distance. It’s essential with pedometers (and all wearable trackers) that you set your stride length as directed. Otherwise, distance will never be correct. Pedometers are great for people who just want to track walking distance, or get a broad idea of daily activity level. 10,000 steps/day is a significant goal to shoot for. It correlates with lower body fat and better health. Less than 4000 steps indicates a sedentary day or, if it’s commonplace, a sedentary life. The negative of pedometers is that they need to be worn on the waistline area. I can’t tell you how many people lose their pedometers because of this, or wash them in the wash by mistake. This is why bracelet trackers, as unattractive as they may be, are much more popular now.

More complex trackers offer much more data, obviously. They can calculate calories expended per exercise session or for the entire day, sleep patterns, heart rate, exercise intensity, GPS tracking, and more.  Let’s discuss a couple specifics regarding these tracked physical parameters.

Fitness monitors are very good for tracking running, walking and other cardiovascular activities where the arm is moved with a steady cadence. Personal experience, as well as published research, has shown that trackers are not accurate for energy expenditure during weight training sessions and even some interval training.  I recently completed a very challenging strength training routine that included heavy kettle bell swings, cleans, bench press, tire flips and more. My fitness monitor, while using my heart rate strap, showed 225 calories expended in 1 ¼ hours. Hmmmm….. Disappointing. This is the same calorie burning and energy expenditure as my 2 ½ mile jog which takes me 30 minutes!  I believe my monitor is underestimating my weight training efforts, not to mention the post exercise energy consumption one sees after heavy weight training. That could be a couple hundred calories more/day that my monitor cannot detect.  Keep this in mind when using monitors during weight training sessions. Instead, look at comparative data. You burned 225 calories during weight training on Wednesday, but 350 on Friday? Then you did more work on Friday. It’s as simple as that.

Calorie expenditures are also just a broad estimation. The fitness tracker does not know your body composition or fitness level, nor your individual genetic metabolic profile.  I have several clients who are on blood pressure medications that slow their heart rate down purposefully. Fitness trackers won’t be accurate at all in these cases, even if one wears the heart rate strap.  If your monitor does not come with a heart rate strap, energy expenditure will not be accurate.  Overall, try not to get too caught up in the exact numbers.  Again, look at it as comparative data.

I particularly like the sleep tracking features many monitors now have. How I sleep directly impacts everything I do. My energy, hunger, brain power, attitude and ability to exercise and eat well all depends on how well I sleep. I do recommend that you purchase a monitor with this feature. There is more and more data supporting the importance of adequate sleep for overall health and longevity as well.

My fitness tracker is a true reality check for me. I have noticed that, on some days, I feel very fatigued. I often convince myself I am tired from my “high level of activity”.  Or, so I think.  In reality, my brain cannot always tell the difference between mental fatigue and physical fatigue.  This is where the tracker comes in. I can take a peek and if I notice that my activity level is low, I recognize that I am more mentally or emotionally fatigued than physically fatigued. This allows me to make a choice going forward. I can decide to rest, especially if my sleep the previous night was poor, or I can chose to exercise to revitalize myself and renew my energy. A fitness tracker can be hugely helpful for those who have a hard time convincing themselves to get up and move.

Aside from data to tell us about our lives and exercise sessions, perhaps the most important value of fitness trackers is that they serve as a reminder to the self-care promise we have made to ourselves.  In the world of coaching, this is often called a “structure”. I have written extensively about structures, whether they are sticky notes, elastics on the wrists, motivational quotes posted around your home, or sneakers placed at the front door. It snaps us out of our mindless habits and into the mindset of a continued effort to achieve our goals.  This is the best use of these often fallible pieces of technology.

If you find that you do not react to the data that your fitness tracker is giving you in a positive way, take a break from it. Sit back and think about what keeps you from accepting the facts and acting on them. Does the activity monitor remind you that you are off track and, thus, it is a negative motivator? Then don’t use it.  Or, at the other end of the spectrum, do you neurotically rely on the monitor and feel let down when you only walk 9999 steps versus 10,000? Another reason to let it go for a while.

One interesting factoid about motivation.  Research comparing fitness monitor motivation with cash and prize incentives for exercise adherence demonstrates that cash is king. People are most motivated by external prizes than day to day data. It’s too bad. We only really change when we feel internally satisfied, not externally rewarded.

Fitness trackers give data. That’s it. Not hugs, not love, not improved self-esteem. Just data. Only you can choose how to use that data.