In 2020, about one in five Americans reported using a smart watch or fitness tracker. It can be a tool that helps or hinders; it all depends on how you use it! Here are few pitfalls to be aware of and a few tips to get more benefit from your smart watch or fitness tracker.
10,000 Steps Or Bust
Have you ever walked around your living room to hit that ever so important number: 10,000? I’ve done it myself. Did you know that the 10,000 step “ideal” for health has limited scientific basis? Don’t get me wrong, step goals are wonderful! We can all agree that more movement and less sitting is GREAT. The reason I bring this up is that becoming overly focused on step count can overshadow other significant measures of effort and progress. What’s important here is the increase in your daily physical activity rather than the actual number of steps achieved. One of the biggest mistakes I hear about is the shunning of any forms of exercise that fail to increase step count sufficiently. This includes modalities such as strength training and mobility work, which happen to be crucial for most women to feel their best. Another issue is the tendency to have a mindset that dictates anything less than perfection isn’t worth doing. “If I can’t get 10,000 steps, why try at all?”
If 10,000 steps makes sense for you, go for it! Just be aware that this specific number is not required for health benefits and you may be better off with a fewer or a greater number of daily steps. How should you determine your step goal? Calculate your daily average over the course of a typical week and consider how much time you spend sitting. Then try to increase that daily number by 500 to 1500 steps. Try it for a week or two and see how it feels. Every 1 to 2 weeks, aim to slowly increase until you discover the goal that involves a reduction in sit-time but is also doable with your daily responsibilities. It can be somewhat fun to try to sneak in more steps as you go about your day. Where should you end up? Well, at least one research study showed health benefits in older women who had step counts between 4400 to 7500 compared to those with less than 2700 steps. Also, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. I know women who aim for 12000 or more steps per day and some that aim for around 5500. I strive for 7500-12000 depending on the day (and season!)
“I burned 600 calories during that class!”
According to one study, “most wrist-worn devices adequately measure heart rate in laboratory-based activities, but poorly estimate energy expenditure, suggesting caution in the use of energy expenditure measurements as part of health improvement programs.” This means you probably shouldn’t use that calorie output to determine what you should eat or whether or not your exercise session was adequately challenging. A LOT of factors other than heart rate and body weight go into accurate energy expenditure determination and your fitness tracker or watch doesn’t have access to all of that information.
While it can be nice to get through a tough circuit or cardio class and see a big calorie burn, on the flip side, it can be disappointing to work hard lifting weights and see a lower readout. The mistake here is thinking that only sessions with a big calorie burn readout are worth doing. In reality, consistent strength training sessions may have a lower calorie burn during the session but can have a more positive impact on overall metabolism than your cardio sessions. (Thank you, muscle!) So, knowing that it’s likely inaccurate and only tells you a part of the picture, it’s best to use the calorie burn or “Move” readout as an indicator of your overall activity level and intensity from day to day rather than looking at it as true calorie expenditure. Don't let this stop you from sharing your post-workout numbers though, you may inspire someone!
I Won’t Rest
The Apple Watch is pretty good at nagging. On my rest day, the watch will remind me that my rings are way behind. My options are to not wear my watch, ignore it knowing that I have determined my desired activity levels for the day, or get up and get it done anyway. Usually, I choose the second option. I still aim to hit my stand goal and get in some movement; however, I don’t do a planned training session or class so my exercise and move rings are often not completed. And that’s okay!
Depending on the intensity of your training or workouts, you DO need days off. Don’t let your watch or tracker guilt you into an extra session. While movement every day is necessary and good, it’s also necessary to take a break from strength training and/or intense exercise. Recovery is a crucial part of making progress and staying healthy. Decide in advance how many days per week you wish you work it and which days you want to rest or follow a training plan.
If it isn’t recorded it didn’t happen…?
This may be true if you work in a laboratory but not so much in relation to exercise and your body’s response to it. If you have been tempted or have actually skipped a workout because you forgot your watch, you aren’t alone. We get so accustomed to having the record of physical activity that it feels wrong to do the work and not have the “proof” afterwards. Regardless of what your brain may be telling you, it “counts” no matter the location of your smart watch. Your body (and organs and cells) don’t know that your movement and effort isn’t being recorded and will respond favorably anyway!
On the other end of the spectrum is not wearing your watch or tracker consistently or always ignoring the prompts to stand, move, breathe, etc. Without consistent use, you cannot obtain the potential benefits that I’ll cover below.
Move Your Body
Improved health through more movement is the reason most of us decided to wear a fitness tracker in the first place. We know that sedentary behavior is linked to poorer health. Not only that, but a lack of sufficient movement doesn’t FEEL good. Sluggish and achy are words used often by those who do not engage in consistent physical activity and exercise. Starting to feel better is as simple as getting up and moving in varied ways on a regular basis throughout the day. Your watch or tracker is designed to help, if you pay attention. Use the prompts and information provided to take action. Most watches will remind you to stand up if you’ve been sitting for an hour. Both the step counter, which can be a general measurement of how much movement you’ve been getting, and exercise tracking allow you to see trends so you can ensure you are getting enough daily movement and weekly exercise. You can use this information to set daily and weekly goals.
Breathe In. Breathe Out.
Do a self-check right now. How’s your posture? How’s your breathing? Throughout the day, most of us tend to get into a shallow breathing pattern, especially as our bodies hunch forward toward our screens. Your watch can remind you to breathe - to REALLY breathe. If you take notice of this prompt and perform the deep, mindful breathing for a couple of minutes, you will feel more relaxed and focused. Even if you don’t do it every time, make it a point to do it at least twice per day. Your body and brain will thank you.
A Heart At Rest
Your resting heart rate (RHR) is the number of times your heart beats per minute while at rest. A normal resting heart rate for most people is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Generally, athletes and those with higher cardiovascular fitness levels have a lower resting heart rate; conditioned individuals may have RHR as low as 40. That’s because a healthy, fit heart is more efficient at pumping blood so it doesn’t have to beat as frequently to get the job done. A good time to check RHR manually is when you first wake up before you get out of bed.
Your fitness tracker/smart watch can also measure your resting heart rate. While it’s not without potential accuracy errors, it is a good way to see trends. If you notice an increase in your resting heart rate over time, it can indicate over-training, dehydration, or inadequate sleep. If you notice a decrease, it could be due to improved fitness levels. It’s a potential measure of progress! If your resting heart rate is low and you experience dizziness and fatigue, it’s time to talk to your doctor. Be aware that heart rate is affected by age, fitness level, body position, environment, hydration, medication, emotions, and sleep.
More Matters of the Heart
Cardio is exercise that is meant to improve your cardio-respiratory system. Running or walking, rowing, biking, and dancing all fall under that umbrella. To improve cardiovascular fitness, you have to work at a level that challenges you sufficiently; it is activity that increases your heart and breathing rates to the point that it feels somewhat hard to very hard. Your watch can help you get more from your cardio sessions by allowing you to see what your heart rate is and relate it to how hard it is you feel you are working (rate of perceived exertion). This can help you become more mindful of your intensity level while you exercise. To get even more in depth, your watch can help you train in heart rate target zones or ensure you are hitting the desired intensity in a cardio training plan. Some apps for smart watches and fitness trackers will show you what zone you are in during your session. As mentioned before, heart rate is affected by a lot of factors and will vary on occasion so keep that in mind. That’s why it’s important to tune into how hard it is you feel you are working as well as the number on your wrist.
All Work and No Play
Most of us have a competitive streak, why not take advantage of it? You can participate in step competitions with co-workers or compete against yourself for a new personal best. You can work towards earning step and exercise-related “badges”. The fitness tracker can make consistent movement or exercise feel like a game you want to win. If you are someone who is motivated by this, make it work for you!
Data Drives Decisions
As mentioned previously, the data from your app can help you develop goals and monitor progress. Without having to remember to record it yourself, wearing a fitness tracker allows you to know more about what you are (and are not) doing. You are able to see what days you tend to be more sedentary and take steps (pun intended!) to improve that. Using this information can also help you create REALISTIC goals. For example, a 12000 daily step goal is probably not reasonable right now if your average over the past couple of months is 3000 steps. When set up with another app or via sharing, your trainer or coach can use the data in creating or modifying your training plan.
The benefits of using a fitness tracker or smart watch are significant…as long as you don’t get too caught up in just the numbers. Remember to link the numbers from your tracking to your overall goals and how you are feeling. The information can be used to reinforce your exercise habit, improve your fitness program, and allow you other measures to track progress over time.
The use of technology in fitness endeavors is in no way required improve your health or to get results. However, it can enhance the experience. Wearable fitness trackers and fitness apps can be so beneficial when it's the right one for you and used in conjunction with your preferences and goals. For that reason, Reuna Fitness incorporates the use of an app to help clients more easily view in-person session progression and track at-home efforts. This app also connects to fitness tracker data, if desired, so we can use it to enhance your fitness programming. It's fun stuff!
Will you change how you've been using your fitness tracker? I hope these tips were helpful. Thank you for reading!