Using Fitness Trackers

See also: Top Tips for Exercising on a Budget

Most of us have heard of smartwatches and fitness trackers such as Fitbits, or fitness tracking apps such as Strava. They are almost ubiquitous these days and can monitor almost every aspect of your body and health. However, are they effective tools in helping you to get fit, stay healthy or achieve fitness goals? This is much less clear.

There are plenty of people who swear by the use of fitness trackers. However, anecdotally at least, there are also plenty of people who give up wearing fitness trackers because they find them confusing, or unhelpful. This page is designed to help you use fitness trackers effectively to support your fitness goals.

What is a Fitness Tracker?

A fitness tracker is a general term for any wearable device or app that records fitness information.

This might include your daily physical activity, workouts, steps, heart rate, sleep time and calories burned. Many are watches, so worn on the wrist. However, they can also be used in conjunction with other equipment such as a chest-based heart rate monitor, or an ankle-wrapping step counter.

Fitness trackers vary in their sophistication and the amount that they can measure.

The most basic may only count steps, or perhaps measure your heart rate. More sophisticated smartwatches can track different types of physical activity, detect when you have changed altitude (for example, by going upstairs), and tell you whether you were deeply or lightly asleep. Some can even identify whether you are experiencing atrial fibrillation!

WARNING! Sophistication is relative

It is important to remember that even the most sophisticated fitness tracker has its limitations. A wrist-based heart rate monitor, for example, is not as accurate as one that uses a chest strap. Similarly, a wrist-based sleep tracker cannot know whether you are awake. It can only detect movement and be programmed to draw inferences about your sleep state.

Data from any fitness tracker should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt. Use it, but don’t necessarily rely on it.

Advantages of Using a Fitness Tracker

There are some clear advantages to using a fitness tracker. These include:

  • Monitoring your exercise and activity gives you a very clear picture of what you are doing. It is much harder to deceive yourself that you are not sedentary, or that you are taking ‘enough’ exercise, when a fitness tracker shows very clearly that you have taken fewer than 3,000 steps in a day, or that your heart rate has not been above 50 all week.

  • It is easier to achieve goals when you have a clear record of progress. A fitness tracker can help you to set goals, and then monitor progress. This makes it much easier to stay on track—and much harder to ignore.

  • A tracker will track more than just exercise, and therefore give you an idea of the healthiness of your overall lifestyle. Most fitness trackers monitor sleep and heart rate, as well as your general level of activity. This means that you can quickly start to see whether your lifestyle is generally healthy, or if small changes could make a big difference.

  • You may be able to connect your email and other messaging apps to your tracker. For those who feel the need to be in touch with their email and messages at all times, this means that you have no excuse for not getting out and exercising. However, you may also like to read our page on Work–Life Balance!

  • Your fitness goals and training can be more precise. Being able to monitor your heart rate means that you can train at precisely the optimum level to reach your fitness goals.

  • Most fitness trackers can provide training plans to help you achieve fitness goals. There are many apps linked to fitness trackers that can generate a training plan for almost any fitness goal. This makes life easy, because you only have to follow the plan. From Couch to 5K upwards, there is a training plan for everyone.

  • Trackers can provide valuable health information. Many trackers monitor a considerable amount of information. This can be useful if you have any concerns about your health, because your doctor can quickly see information about your heart rate over a period, whether you are sleeping, and possibly other information such as your stress level.

  • Tracking activity does generally help people to increase their activity levels. Research has shown that people who track their steps or other daily activity levels tend to increase their activity over time. This works in both the short and long term.

  • Trackers help you to appreciate the nature of vigorous and moderate exercise. It is easy to say that you should do 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week (and for more about this, see our page on The Importance of Exercise), but what does this mean? Trackers help you to understand that because they assess the level of vigour by how much your heart rate has increased.

  • A tracker will often estimate your calories used—which could be a lot less than you expected. Especially if you are in a relatively sedentary job, you may well find that the figures for average calorie intake required are considerably more than you expend, at least according to your fitness tracker! This could be a useful trigger to reduce your calorie intake, especially if you are slowly gaining weight over time.

Disadvantages of Using a Fitness Tracker

However, there are also some disadvantages to using a fitness tracker, including:

  • Trackers are expensive. It is good to be sure that you are going to get value out of it before buying. It may be worth starting with a free app (for example, the basic version of Strava) to see if you will get value from a more expensive device.

  • Your exercise can start to be dictated by your tracker, rather than what you actually want to do. It is easy to get sucked in to letting your tracker dictate your exercise regime. You download a workout or training plan, or you join a challenge in a group. Before you know it, you are avoiding certain forms of exercise because they don’t give you any steps, or choosing your workout because of its value to your ‘score’ on your device. Fitness trackers should be tools to support your choices about exercise, not dictate them.

  • It is possible to become obsessive about tracking your activity. This can lead to anxiety and stress—and is therefore counterproductive.

If I collapse, will someone please pause my Strava?

Internet meme, also used on clothing to mock those who take fitness tracking to extremes

  • Trackers are not completely reliable. If your watch slips during exercise, you might find that your heart rate has not been read correctly. The battery may go flat in the middle of a workout. It is wise not to rely on a tracker.

  • If you miss a goal, it can feel rather discouraging. A failure to hit a fitness goal—especially if it is because your device failed to record something—can be discouraging. It can even lead people to give up using their tracker or working towards their goal.

Crucially a fitness tracker is a tool. It is not a goal in itself, and it will be most effective when you use it as a tool.

Tips for Effective Use of a Fitness Tracker

To get the best out of using a fitness tracker, you may find these tips helpful.

  1. Use your tracker all the time – but don’t get obsessed

    Trackers are most useful when you can compare data from day to day, and week to week.

    This will give you the best idea of whether you are getting ‘better’: taking more exercise, moving more, becoming fitter and so on.

    However, if you find yourself becoming a bit obsessive about it, take a break. Stop tracking for a day a week, say, and see how you feel.

  2. Set the right goals

    It is important to set yourself the right goals: goals that will motivate you, and help you to get out there and exercise.

    Goals like ‘lose weight’ or ‘get fitter’ are hard to assess. It is therefore tempting to aim for specific goals, such as ‘follow the Couch to 5k programme’, or to achieve a particular speed or distance.

    However, evidence from several studies suggests that challenging and open-ended goals are often both more motivating and more effective for physical activity than very specific goals.

    In one study, people who set SMART goals (those that were Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bounded) actually achieved significantly less than those who set themselves open-ended goals such as ‘run more’. It certainly seems worth considering ‘process goals’—those that focus on what you are going to do—rather than ‘outcome goals’, which focus on what you are going to achieve. Process goals will last longer. You will also be less discouraged by a failure to achieve particular standards, and simply focus on what you are doing.

  3. Adopt incentives that work for you

    Many apps and fitness trackers have awards, rewards and badges that may help you to get motivated to exercise. For example, you may find it helpful to aim for a particular number of miles run or walked each month, or a challenge that requires you to achieve a certain number of sessions of exercise each week.

    If these challenges help you, then use them. However, if they distract you away from your real fitness goals, then it may be better to avoid them.

  4. Work with friends and family

    Many fitness tracking apps are a bit like social media.

    You can connect with people you know, and watch each other’s progress, and also challenge each other. This can be a helpful way to keep yourself motivated and on track, especially if you don’t have anyone that you can exercise with in person.

  5. Focus on what matters to you

    Fitness trackers can generate an enormous amount of information. Some of this may be useful—but some of it may not.

    Focus on what really matters to you, whether that is training in the right heart rate zone, or getting a certain number of steps each day.

    Ignore the rest. It’s just noise.

Choosing the Right Fitness Tracker

As with anything, the key to choosing the right fitness tracker is to know what you want it to do for you.

More sophisticated is not necessarily better, especially if you only want to monitor basic information like your heart rate, steps and sleep. If your only sport is running or walking, then a running-focused tracker is likely to be better than one designed to monitor 50 different sports. Equally, if you want a tracker for a particular sport, it is best to get one that is designed to monitor that sport (for example, heart rate and location during swimming are challenges for many trackers).

Top Tip! Ask for recommendations

Your best option to find the right tracker is to ask around, either among your friends and acquaintances, or online, via fitness forums or social media—and particularly among people doing the same kind of sport as you.

Tracker users are generally happy to share their experience, and you should get a reasonably good idea of what is available, and how effective it will be for your purposes.

The Bottom Line

Will a fitness tracker be effective for you? That is a question that only you can answer.

If you like the idea, then this page should help you get the best use from a tracker. And that is really the key: trackers should be tools to help you make progress towards your goals. Once they become the goal in themselves, they are likely to be considerably less useful.