The Lowdown on Activity Trackers

The Garmin Connect app used with my Forerunner 35

Fitbit, Garmin, Apple Watch, Moov Now, Samsung – there are so many different brands and many different types of devices now coined ‘wearables’, all with varying levels of complexity and at varying price-points. Many of these are all-in-one smart watches that act as a wrist-worn extension of your phone. This isn’t a gadget or tech review however, but rather my opinion as a trainer, on how and why you should use a wearable to track your activity and improve your health & longevity.

Pedometers are on Steroids!

Activity tracking back in the day used to be a simple pedometer that you’d clip on to your waistband or put in your pocket and then go plodding about your day. Nowadays, you can buy a wrist-worn, unbranded pedometer that’s styled like a cheap Fitbit – for as little as £0.99p. It’s true, I just checked eBay! I can’t vouch for it, but if it’s simply to count steps, it’s feasible that it does the job reasonably well. Essentially, Fitbit and the like, are just modern pedometer/watches that sends the information to an app on your phone. In a short couple of years, multiple other functions have been added.

These days, when you’re buying tech (that is growing ever-more complex), you’re not just paying for the hardware, manufacturing & shipping costs – you’re paying for all the months or years of research and development that have preceded its production, including the associated apps and software.

You don’t need to spend £££s to track your activity!

If you just want to see approximately how many steps you take per day, there are countless products to choose from that do just that. This in my opinion, is the single most valuable aspect of a wearable, and is seemingly its most basic function.

I love tracking steps with trainees, and I strongly encourage them to buy some sort of tracker, as long as it counts steps. Many people have smart watches nowadays anyway, which can also track sleep and heart rate- and this is awesome! But as long as we’re tracking steps we’re getting:

  • Awareness of current activity (or lack thereof). Quantifying anything is essential in setting tangible goals. You’ve just got to face the music and find out where you’re at. I’ve never met anybody who is very overweight and yet walks >10k steps/day. There must be something to this walking malarkey.
  • Reminders.  You’re literally wearing a visual reminder of the fact that you’re on a mission to achieve some health goals. Also, many of them literally remind you when you’ve been sat on your butt too long with a little beep or vibration. It’s like having your own personal trainer around your wrist!
  • Seeing trends over time. It’s really rewarding and reinforcing to see how your daily activity is adding up.

But what about all the other fancy-schmancy metrics?

These days one can gather all kinds of other useful metrics such as heart rate, sleep duration & quality, distance travelled and you can also measure things during sport and exercise sessions such as pace, speed, cadence, intervals etc. If you regularly train or go running, then these are really good nice-to-haves to save you doubling up on multiple devices. 

The second-most beneficial function of a wearable, in my opinion, is sleep tracking! The importance of sleep (and how it’s tracked) is another huge post in it’s own right, but for brevity’s sake, if you can measure it, fantastic! I have personally found however, a huge between-brand discrepancy in sleep tracking sensitivity. Like any of these measurables, they are really only useful in tracking trends over time, when using the same device – to gauge improvement or decline.

But Don’t Rely on Your Activity Tracker for Your Calories!

Wearables aggregate various data such as your movement and heart rate to estimate your calorie expenditure based on the information you have given in your profile. This includes age, gender, height and weight. The more reliable estimates also use your body fat % in this formula, if you even know it (which in itself is an unreliable estimate), in order to estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR – the amount of energy your body needs to survive with no additional activity). So you see the whole thing is just estimates based off estimates of estimates. Indeed, not reliable in the slightest.  So if you religiously track your burned calories in order to plan your food intake to the nth degree, I suggest you go live in a metabolic chamber.

Exhibit A, Ladies and Gentlemen…

In 2017, seven subjects completed 24 minutes on a treadmill, increasing in intensity every 6 minutes whilst simultaneously wearing a Fitbit Zip and an Apple Watch Sport whilst also having their actual VO2 measured by indirect calorimetry (an accurate ‘sciency’ way of measuring kcals burned). The results demonstrated a huge discrepancy between measurements. The Fitbit Zip estimated a mean total calories of 296, Apple Watch Sport estimated 201, whilst indirect calorimetry measured 196! (Ferrara et. al, 2017).

Don’t hang your nutrition on what your wearable tells you!

What’s My Point?

  • If you’re not happy with your current health or body composition and you don’t know how many steps you take per day – Get an activity tracker!
  • Wearables are a fantastic tool for raising your awareness of your current activity level
  • This awareness in itself perpetuates a greater increase in activity (it motivates you!)
  • They are also a brilliant, measurable and objective tool for setting and achieving new activity-based goals
  • Walking more is the foundation to improving your activity, posture and general enjoyment of life!
  • For optimal health, taking >10,000 steps per day is ideal, but not everybody is there yet.
  • If you aren’t achieving 10k/day, make a goal to increase it by 20-40% (medium – difficult for optimal results).

What Does 10,000 Steps ‘Look Like’?

According to Wilde et al. (2001), a 30-min walk for sedentary women between the ages 30 and 55 years would result in approximately 3100 steps. So if you currently average around 3-4000 steps, then two ~30 minute walks, or four ~15 minute walks would roughly get you there. If you’re more of habitual speed-walker, like me, you may walk approximately 3000 steps in around 20 minutes. Everybody’s different – The only way to know is to measure yourself!

How to Get More Steps into your Daily Life

It’s far better to try to introduce new habits that you can stick with, than trying to ‘shoehorn’ a mammoth 10,000 step walk into each day.

  • Make it a personal principle to leave the lifts/elevators for the less-abled and people with heavy loads and wheels. The stairs won’t kill you. Not taking the stairs might. Eventually.
  • Walk short journeys instead of driving. Make positive associations with walking by listening to your favourite tunes or use the time to catch up with a loved one, in person or over the phone.
  • When you do have to drive, make use of the ample spaces right at the back of the car park or park further out of town and walk the rest of the way – enjoy the cheaper or free parking.
  • Walking meetings. They’re all the rage now. Increasing your cerebral blood flow can really get your creative juices flowing. Besides, it’s nice to get some fresh air, out of the office and maybe soak up some essential vitamin D while you’re at it.
  • Go for a walk. Just because. It’s great for reducing stress, getting some thinking time or you can really focus on your posture and breathing.
  • Regular movement snacks throughout the day. Every hour, get up off your butt, and stroll for a couple of minutes.

Have an opinion? Any other ideas? Let me know and comment below.


3 thoughts on “The Lowdown on Activity Trackers”

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