You've finally gotten the fitness tracker you're been wanting. Or maybe you are dusting off one that's been sitting in a drawer patiently waiting for you. Now what?
These little devices can help you meet your exercise goals. But how do you go from nice wrist accessory to real gains – or losses?
If you are just getting started, or want to maximize your returns, focus on these three things says Yue Liao, Ph.D., instructor in the Department of Behavioral Science.
Set a baseline for steps and build from there.
The easiest thing for your new tracker to do is tell you how many steps you take each day. But don’t immediately start trying to push this number through the roof.
“The best thing you can do is avoid the urge to get out and try to do everything,” Liao says. "Give yourself a week with the device, do your normal activities. See how many steps you're already doing.”
Once you know how much you walk normally, you can find ways to add more steps throughout the day.
“If you have 2,000, try for 3,000 steps,” says Liao. "You can do simple things to get more active."
Set up the device to buzz every hour to tell you to move. Add in more walking by parking farther away from a store or your office.
Look at the difference after another week to see how small changes can really add up.
“Walking is the easiest thing to do, you don’t have to change clothes or go to the gym,” Liao says. Walk with your family, friends or pets to make it more fun.
Build to the recommended 10,000 steps per day over time based on your own starting point.
“Don’t think of big intangible goals for yourself, go for little things that make you think it’s easy.”
Use the heart rate function to make the most of your walks.
Once you are walking more, the next step is to increase the intensity of your walks. If your fitness tracker has a heart rate monitor, simply watch it as you walk and try to increase the number by walking a little faster.
Most health tracking devices will give you a target heart rate if you enter your personal details like gender and age.
“You can increase the speed of your walk until you hit your heart rate target,” Liao says.
You can also calculate you target heart rate. Subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate. If you’re working at 50 to 70% of your maximum, it is considered moderate exercise. If you’re working at 70 to 85% of your heart rate then it is vigorous exercise.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week to lower your risk of diseases like cancer. The heart rate monitor helps you hit those targets and get the most out of your exercise.
If your device does not have a heart rate monitor, use this guide to identify moderate and vigorous exercise.
Even if you can’t get to moderate or vigorous activity levels, any movement is good for your health, and can help you build up to more activity.
Who doesn’t love a device that helps them rest? Some fitness trackers can show you how many hours you sleep. It may also let you know if you were restless or restful if you wear it to bed. The heart rate function may also add data for how deeply you are sleeping.
The quality of your sleep can tell you a lot about where you are health-wise.
“A lot of people don’t know the amount of sleep they get,” says Liao. “They think they are getting eight hours, but they find out it’s really more like six.”
And sleep and exercise are related, so your tracker is doing double duty if you use it to measure both.
Improving sleep is one of the biggest benefits of exercising. Following your sleep patterns on your device can be a powerful motivator for continuing to work toward your exercise goals.
“It’s eye-opening. Over time, you could see better sleep as a reward for all those extra steps,” says Liao.
Using these three functions on your fitness tracker can help you create an activity plan that works for you.
“The important thing is to treat the device as a tool,” says Liao. “It’s not a thing that will make you more active all of a sudden, but the new information can be a wake-up call to help you do better over time.”
Heart rate: What to know
RESTING HEART RATE: This is your heart rate when you are at rest, sitting or standing and not exerting yourself. Your resting heart rate decreases as your fitness increases.
MAXIMUM HEART RATE: This is the maximum number of beats your heart is capable of but you should not try to exercise to this level. To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Use this number to help you work out your target heart rate on the next slide.
TARGET HEART RATE: This is the number of heart beats per minute needed to achieve cardiovascular fitness. Your target heart rate is between 50 and 85% of your maximum heart rate.