You might have seen headlines claiming that fitness trackers don’t actually help people lose weight or get fit, but don’t ditch your device just yet. It does offer a wealth of benefits you can tap into—you just need to know how.
The negative stories about fitness trackers mostly came from research showing that many people give up on their devices, some within months after purchasing them. But it’s not necessarily the fault of these devices. It may be because these users had one particular unrealistic expectation—they thought that their devices would provide all the motivation they needed for change.
Nope. Although fitness trackers can provide external motivation, you also need to have internal motivation to make any new healthy behaviors stick, says Elizabeth J. Lyons, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galverston, whose research includes how to use fitness trackers to make positive changes. Think of a fitness tracker this way: It can be your GPS, guiding you, but you still need to know the address—your goals—that you want to get to.
Here are Dr. Lyons’ five tips to make a fitness tracker do great things for you…
Be picky when picking a device. You’d be surprised how many people buy a particular fitness tracker on the spur of the moment because it’s on sale or only because a friend has the same model. If you haven’t yet bought one (or are interested in getting a new one), to choose one that will work well for you and your lifestyle, make sure it…
- Has a design you truly like (since it will essentially become a fashion accessory) and a form you won’t mind wearing—whether as a watch, ring, bracelet, pendant or something that clips to your clothing. Keep in mind that a smart watch device offers the most opportunity for adding apps that support your specific goals (see more below). Not all band-style trackers are as versatile. Make sure the device will work with your smartphone—an Apple Watch won’t work with an Android smartphone, for instance, but it can display all the apps on your iPhone.
- Is waterproof if you will want to wear it while showering, swimming or while running outdoors in bad weather.
- Doesn’t need to be charged more often than you are willing to put up with (some batteries last only one day, others for days or weeks at a time).
Try out numerous apps. Every fitness tracker has its own software and most are designed to sync up with a smartphone. But don’t limit yourself to what came in the box—there are a variety of other tools that can augment it. It might take a few different apps to help you both meet personal goals and stay motivated—and that’s OK. Dr. Lyons uses an activity monitor, a diet-logging app and a bullet journal (the organizational tool for journaling based on a bullet point design) to track her results and identify any unhealthy patterns.
Go to your favorite app store and search for fitness tracker apps designed for your device’s operating system (typically iOS or Android, but some brands work with both). Depending on your tracker, you might be able to download third-party apps directly or need to do it via your smartphone.
Think big and small when it comes to goals. Many fitness trackers allow you to set only short-term goals, so it’s up to you to identify your long-term goals or “the big why,” as Dr. Lyons calls it. Ask yourself why it’s important for you to be more active and what, specifically, you’re working toward. Your answers may not only motivate you long-term, but could also help you refine your short-term goals and make your daily efforts feel more meaningful.
For example, if your long-term goal is to lose 20 pounds, you might set a short-term goal of weighing yourself every morning. Many tracker apps pair with Wi-Fi scales that can automatically send your weight to the app. If you don’t like the idea of keeping track of your numerical weight, there is even one such scale that doesn’t show your weight, just whether you’re gaining, losing or staying the same. Remember that substantial weight loss is unlikely without changing diet as well as physical activity, so using the diet and weight tracking options available in many fitness tracker apps may be a good idea to help you lose weight.
If your long-term goal is to keep up with your family on an annual hiking trip, your first short-term goal might be to take three 10-minute walks every weekday for a few weeks…then three 15 minute walks every weekday…then an hour-long walk…etc. until you know you can make that hike and look forward to taking it!
Track your behaviors, not just your steps. If you can’t seem to squeeze in those 10,000 steps per day that many people try for (or whatever daily goal you’ve set), ask yourself what you could do differently. Using an app that allows you to comment on your activities or write diary entries can help you figure out what’s going wrong and changes that may help. For instance, if you notice that you’re less active on Wednesdays and that walking your dog after work is typically that day’s only activity, you might add a morning dog walk or walk during your lunch hour every hump day. The most important thing is to realize that to be successful, you’ll have to work fitness into your schedule…because as great as your fitness tracker is, simply wearing it is not going to cut it!
Take advantage of new services. The capabilities of fitness trackers for enhancing health continues to grow. They’re already helping people manage medical problems as well as reach fitness goals. For instance, the Fitbit Ionic has a sensor that takes and displays blood glucose readings, which may facilitate diabetes care. The Kardia app for the Apple Watch takes an EKG in 30 seconds on your wrist, and you can share this information with your doctor, a boon for people with A-fib and other abnormal heart rhythms. If you have a chronic medical condition that can be addressed in some way by your fitness tracker, take advantage of that capability—and you may be more likely to wear the tracker consistently and also use its fitness tools. And that’s a win-win.