Got a Fitness Tracker…Now What?

I read an article recently which suggested over 35% of Australians now own a fitness tracker of some description. Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin and several others seem to be doing very well out of this new found demand people have for health and fitness data.

But what impact are these devices really having on people’s health and fitness? Is the ability to track our health data really helping us get fitter and healthier?

When I was still working with elite athletes and rehabilitating people who had suffered significant lifestyle related health problems such as heart attacks, data was an integral requirement in achieving improvements in health and performance.

The data used with high performance athletes was all geared towards developing training programs that ultimately lead to extracting the absolute best out of each athlete during competition. On the other hand, the data used in rehabilitating those with lifestyle disease was essentially about moving people away from near-death and closer to a state of relative health.

In both instances the data was helping move people in the same direction along the health continuum, but at the extremes: one essentially saving lives, the other pushing the boundaries of maximal human performance.

So what of those in the middle – the weekend warrior athletes or those simply trying to live a more active, healthy lifestyle? Is this health and fitness data really of any use to them? The simple answer is of course ‘yes’ if it is actively used to shape the activities and actions being tracked.

However, in my view, any data is useless without context and without relatively large amounts of it. The key point here being that the fitness tracker is only of value if you are consistently DOING the work and have good amounts of data to review and also that you know what you are trying to achieve in the first place.

So, while we now all have relatively easy and comparatively cheap access to fitness trackers, I do wonder whether they are any different to having easy, cheap access to a gym i.e. having access and actually accessing are clearly very different things.

In my view, what’s missing from the fitness trackers is clear goal setting and accountability. Whilst I have no doubt most people will see some sort of spike in their activity following the purchase of a fitness tracker, I’d bet good money that the consistency and dedication to staying active goes the same way as most new year’s resolutions mid-way through January!

Coming from a sport science and exercise physiology background, I am certainly a supporter of fitness trackers and the insight and structure they can help provide. I also like the fact that these are now accessible to pretty much anyone who wants one.

However, I think that in order to get the most from them, their owners need to first and foremost be very clear about why they bought one, what their health goals actually are and also ensure there is a level of accountability with regards to DOING the work.

Buying the tracker will likely result in an initial improvement in ones commitment to a healthier and fitter life, but remember that life will still get in the way and if you are not very clear on what you are ultimately trying to achieve it will become as easy to ignore the inbuilt exercise reminders as it is to hit the snooze button when you should be getting up and going to the gym.

So, how do you overcome this and ensure you get the most out of your new purchase? Here are a few ideas to get you started…..

1) You’ve heard it before, but don’t go it alone. Find someone, or an online community, that will provide you a level of accountability and support.

2) Set goals. Aimlessly tracking steps or other health metrics is almost useless unless you know what you are trying to achieve. If there is no target, there’s no point. So, set yourself a challenge, or better yet, join one. Having something to work towards helps keep you motivated and on track.

3) Find a way to interpret the data from the tracking device. Simply counting steps on its own provides limited context. But, looking at your steps together with records of your food and water intake, hours slept and how you feel each day, provides much better insight into your overall wellbeing.

4) Use technology. Newer model iPhones all have health data applications but you can also download third party apps such as Nudge which can collate various sets of data and present it in a manner that gives you a more holistic view of your wellbeing.

5)  Remember, you still have to DO THE WORK. So, schedule set times in your calendar for going to the gym or for a walk, swim, surf, bike ride. Whatever you like to do, schedule it in and defend it!