By Amanda N. Wegner
Look around: Chances are, most people are wearing some sort of fitness tracker. And for the most part, that’s a good thing.
“I believe fitness wearables are awesome, and I think that they’re changing the way that people are motivated to work out,” says Dante Digangi, an ACE certified personal trainer and owner of Exodus Personal Training in Lake Geneva. “It’s your own personal accountability partner right on your wrist and nothing pushes you more than accountability. I’ve clearly seen my own clients even want to move more and more because they see that little number on their wrist go up and up.”
Rachel Person, program director at Four Lakes Athletic Club in Elkhorn, agrees. “I’ve really seen an increase in people’s activity. It does make you more aware of what you’re doing daily and the accountability is a good factor.”
Trackers also help “automate” what a coach, nutritionist or personal trainer would ask you to do if you want to get more active or improve your diet: Log your habits.
“Tracking your behavior, whether on paper or with a device, is one of the most effective things you can do” says Dr. Lisa Cadmus-Bertram, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology and epidemiology at UW-Madison. “It provides awareness and accountability, and that sets the stage for making successful changes. For that reason, trackers can be very helpful, especially because they capture all the little bits and pieces of activity you do throughout the day.”
But like any other tool, she adds, it will help you only if you are diligent about using it. Here, these three professionals share their thoughts on fitness trackers and how to make the most of these industry- and health-changing devices.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: THAT 10K-STEP GOAL
All three experts agree that the 10,000step goal that most trackers set as the default is just that, a default, and you should set your tracker accordingly.
“I would say it isn’t for everybody,” says Person. “Everybody has different circumstances and is at a different place in their fitness journey.”
The 10,000-step default, explains Cadmus-Bertram, is based on the recommended number of steps for good health, but this may be quite different from one’s own starting point. She suggests wearing the tracker for a week to get a good understanding for your activity level, then adjust the goal if needed. That goal should be at least 500 steps per day above your starting point, with an aim to increase from there. “If your starting point is 5,000 steps, then shooting for 10,000 right away is only setting yourself up for failure,” says Cadmus-Bertram. “A better approach is to set a series of realistic goals that will give you the positive reinforcement that comes from success.”
Setting a realistic goal also keeps you from injuring yourself by going too far too fast. “If you over train the body too quickly, you can have more problems including injuries. Too much, too fast will derail any progress you’ve made. Small changes, week by week, will show in the data and they will add up,” says Person.
SET UP FOR SUCCESS
To get the most from a tracker, Digangi, Person and Cadmus-Bertram offer some suggestions:
Get to know your device: Wear your tracker all day, every day, recommends Cadmus-Bertram, and spend time acquainting yourself with its features and the app or website that goes with it.
Engage in friendly competition: Many trackers, says Digangi, allow you to add friends, so you can then set up a shared goal or use challenges built into the wearable’s app. For instance, Fitbit has a Workweek Challenge that makes it easy to invite coworkers to see who can get in the most steps Monday through Friday.
Engaging with friends, family and coworkers, Cadmus-Bertram says, “can be a great way to remind you to support and encourage one another.”
Set goals you can achieve: Set a few easy to obtain goals for the first few weeks, goals that you know you will achieve, and tweak them a little each week. “Resist the temptation to set unrealistic goals or to set too many different types of goals right off the bat,” says Cadmus-Bertram. “Keep it simple and shoot to make small improvements each week.”
Shout your results: Most trackers allow you to connect your device to social media, so you can choose to share your results with your social networks. “Posting the results on social media gives people a lot of feedback and praise from their friends and family that usually turns into more motivation for them to continue moving,” says Digangi.
Power up: Most trackers need to be charged every four to six days, so set up a routine for how you’ll keep your tracker charged. “This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people fall off track due to really simple things, like not charging the device,” says Cadmus-Bertram, who charges her tracker while she takes a shower.
It’s okay to go without: Just because your tracker isn’t on your body doesn’t mean that you aren’t working … it’s okay to go without it. “I find that when people forget to wear it, then they feel like they aren’t getting credit for the day, they feel like they failed for the day,” says Person. “But your body is still working even if your device isn’t on it.”
She also adds that it’s alright to take a break from working toward your daily step goal, especially if your body is telling you no.
“You have to listen to your body, not just your device,” says Person.
Be realistic: Remember that the tracker is a tool that provides an estimate of your physical activity; it’s not going to be 100 percent accurate and for most people, that’s just fine.
“It’s important to have realistic expectations,” says Cadmus-Bertram. “No single sensor, placed on one location on the body, can perfectly measure all activities among all people.”
Diversify: One con that Person sees with fitness trackers is that with all the focus on steps, people can forget the importance of strength work. “Strength work will kick in in the body faster; you’ll see more results with more weight training and less steps,” says Person. “You do need both.”
GET WHAT YOU NEED
The fitness wearables market has exploded in the past few years and with a huge variety of devices to choose from, how does one make a choice. It really depends on what the person is looking for, says Digangi.
A basic tracker will likely record steps and calories burned. Want a heart rate monitor? Sleep monitor? GPS-capability? Something that’s waterproof that you can wearing while swimming? A tracker that has changeable bands so you can customize it? Start by assessing what’s most important to you and your health and wellness needs, then choose what suits your needs from there.
For most people, Cadmus-Bertram advises a wristwatch-style tracker over a clip-on tracker as it’s easier to remember to wear it each day. If remembering to charge it might be a problem, consider a tracker that uses a coin cell battery, which will last about a year before needing replacement.
“Trackers vary by price and features, but even the less expensive models have the most important features,” she says, “so don’t feel pressured to buy the top of the line unless you really want a specific feature, like GPS tracking.”