How To Make The Most Of Your Fitness Tracker (Without Falling Off The Wagon)

Fitness tracking gadgets are everywhere; even the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone will have a built-in fitness tracker. But whether they actually do any good is a hotly debated issue. Let's take a look at the types of people who benefit the most from fitness tracking gadgets and apps, and how you can make yours work best for you.

Most fitness gadgets and apps are actually quite good at tracking your activity level. They have evolved from simple pedometers to gadgets that can track floors climbed, kilojoules burned, and even how well you sleep. The latest models can measure your heart rate, sync wirelessly, and rally your friends to support you, and more. They're also quite affordable -- most hover around $100-$150, while the supporting apps are generally free. Eventually, they'll be everywhere: in our phones, embedded in our clothing, built into our shoes.

Even so, the picture isn't all rosy. How many of your friends who obsessively tweet their latest Withings Scale weigh in or Fitbit daily score are actually making progress to their fitness goals? Once the lustre of a new gadget wears off, we're often back to our old bad habits. So how can we make the most of these tools, and benefit from the data they provide without falling off the wagon? We talked to Dick Talens, co-founder of Fitocracy, and Derek Flanzraich, CEO and founder of Greatist, to find out.

Quantifying Yourself Is Not Improving Yourself

The Quantified Self movement seeks to use technology to document and analyse a person's day-to-day activities in order to jump start positive change in their lives. We're fans of the approach: accurate, externally-collected data represents an objective truth. You see what you're actually doing, not what you'd like to be doing, or what you wish you were doing. That information can be a powerful encouragement to get off the couch and hit the gym, or go for a run. Photo by Tatsuo Yamashita.

For example, studies have shown keeping a food log actually makes us more conscious about what we eat, simply because we're paying attention. That alone makes us stop, think, and make better decisions. When our own Adam Pash got in better shape with the help of technology, he explained that he was already motivated to make a change. He let his desire to get in shape and his love of data merge into an unstoppable force that kept him driven and motivated, turning into a feedback loop that fitted in with his habits.

The problem with quantifying yourself, as even advocates of the movement will tell you, is that tracking every little bit of information is just the beginning. Next, you have to examine the data and actually make the changes required to improve your life. Part of your motivation may come from playing your life like a game, making changes to improve your "stats" and make the numbers look better. Some of the motivation may come from the stark reality of the numbers in front of you, and the message they carry. Here's the catch: all of those sources of motivation have to exist prior to the start of data collection.

Some Feedback Is Better Than No Feedback At All

If you're the type who feels data is its own reward, fitness tracking tools are great for you. They fit into the habit loop, which consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. Unfortunately, not all of us love data enough to feel rewarded by it, and many people who invest in tracking gadgets give up as soon as the "new shiny toy" aspect of it (and the data it collects) wears off. In some cases, it can actually be counterproductive.

The type of activity that fitness tracking gadgets and apps encourage you to do (and spend their limited willpower on) may not help in the long term. Dick pointed to this study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and explained: "The activity that most people partake in with a Fitbit can be characterised as 'Low Intensity Steady State' or LISS cardio. When people lose weight via LISS cardio, their metabolism adjusts and they actually need to keep that same amount of cardio up just to maintain their weight." Otherwise, he said, you'll just put the weight back on.

There's more: A recent study of diabetes patients, a group of people who have been told to use self-monitioring and testing gadgets to keep up with their health for over 30 years, showed that many eventually came to see their self-testing as "the enemy," and it made them less interested and engaged with their health, not more. This report on the issue in The Atlantic notes that in a vacuum, self-tracking can turn from empowerment tool to weighted shackles in short order.

Ultimately, using a fitness tracking gadget in isolation -- that is, just looking at it on your own and hoping for motivation to be more active and improve your health -- isn't always enough to make you healthier. All isn't lost, though: there are some ways to use your fitness tracking gadget to actually improve your health.

How to Make The Most Of Your Fitness Tracking Gadget

By now, we've taken the shine off of fitness tracking gadgets and apps so you see them for what they are: data collection tools. So how can you make the most of them and the data they provide? Here are a few suggestions:

Get Your Friends Involved

Both Dick and Derek explained that being social -- that is, joining or getting into a community of people who will encourage you -- is the best, fastest, and most significant way to get and stay on the course to better health. This is why people with trainers, couples who get in shape together, and workout buddies have more success than people who work out alone. Derek notes:

In my opinion, I'm convinced the killer app for health and fitness tracking is social. That's what I think can take health tracking to the next level, where regular people care. If we can do something fun with it, compete or work together to achieve certain goals with it, then we'll forget about the numbers and instead just focus on getting healthier.

Dick explained that this is partially the philosophy behind Fitocracy, and services like it that both compete with and complement fitness tracking tools. Eventually, the fun of logging steps, collecting badges, and maximising stats wears off, and when it does, the community is still there to help push you forward and compare those stats with you. Photo by Mike Baird.

I'm a big fan of working towards your goals in public, but when it comes to fitness, you'll have to do more than just tweet your weigh-ins to try and shame yourself into losing weight, or having your Fuelband post your daily stats to a public page where all of your friends on the site can see:

  • Find like-minded people and really engage them. Talk to them, work out with them, share your workout plans with them, and discuss what works and what doesn't. Get a workout buddy, or convince your best friend or spouse to get the same gadget and compete with you. Whether it's an online community, a private Google+ circle or Facebook group, or even a mailing list of your closest family and friends, get people to help you out who'll be vested in your success.
  • Get people invested in your success. If you do post your stats and steps publicly, make sure you get friends and family to encourage you and coach you -- broadcasting doesn't help anyone, but getting friends and family really involved with what you're going goes much further. Leverage the communities in these apps and around these gadgets. There's a reason why people who train for marathons solicit donations from friends and report on their training progress. It works.

Make Your Tracking Gadget or App Part of a Bigger Package

Your fitness tracking gadget and your Wi-Fi scale (both of which I own, mind you) shouldn't be the beginning and the end of your fitness journey:

  • Choose tools that work well together. When I went shopping for a fitness tracking gadget, I wanted one that had a webapp (so I could use it on any system) and supported both iOS and Android (since I own an Android phone and an iPad). I settled on the Fitbit, but you should pick the one that has the features that matter to you the most. If you plan to track your diet and nutrition, make sure you pick a tool that works well with the app or service you use for that (I use LoseIt, which plays very nicely with my Fitbit and my Withings Scale). If you like to run, make sure your running tool plays nicely with everything else. You see what we mean. If you wind up with five different apps to log in to and services to enter data into every day, you increase the odds you'll never use any of them, or at least give up on one of them.
  • Share your data with experts. Remember, exercise and nutrition are individual sciences, and there's no one-size-fits-all diet or exercise plan that works for everyone. If you have access to a nutritionist or a fitness coach, share your data with them so they can see your progress. Get feedback from them on what you're doing right or wrong, and what you should try doing. Talk to your doctor to see if the types of exercises you're doing are right for you. Show them your food log and ask if the reason your progress has slowed has something to do with your diet. Even if you don't have quick access to a nutritionist or a personal trainer, some of the communities we've mentioned have a wealth of knowledgeable people who understand the importance of helping one another.

Don't Work In A Vacuum

Fitness tracking gadgets and apps have a lot of potential, but the science on them is mixed and lagging behind their explosion in popularity. Early reports suggest that our relationship with them is similar to any piece of exercise equipment: We buy it because it's shiny and we have the best intentions, but eventually it ends up gathering dust in a corner because it doesn't solve the real problem that led us to the need to get in shape.

The core mechanic that you have to address is motivation. We've shown you how to motivate yourself into a routine you'll stick to, and explained how important it is to find people and communities that will help you stay motivated, cheer you on from the sidelines, and help you get moving again when you falter. Self-tracking has huge potential to be part of that habit loop -- offering valuable data and insight into your progress, and even helping reward you for your efforts.

When used in combination with the things that do work, and as part of a bigger plan to improve your health, they can be valuable. However, on their own and without any of the other pieces of the puzzle, you should be wary. Otherwise they'll end up like that treadmill in the garage you've been meaning to dust off.

Richard Talens is the Co-Founder and Chief Growth Officer at Fitocracy, a fitness tracking site and social network that's makes tracking your exercise a real-world game that's fun to play. You can find him on Twitter at @dicktalens.

Derek Flanzraich is the Founder and CEO of Greatist, an amazing resource for health and fitness news and tips. You can find him on Twitter at @thederek, and follow Greatist at @greatist.

Both gentlemen volunteered their expertise for this post, and we thank them.


Comments

    For me being social on a site with a bunch of random people who comment on what I do and what I eat doesnt help. It has taken me a while but I have managed to push through the exercising by myself issue with sheer persistance and making myself do the workouts.

    Gadgets for me make a huge difference, as it allows to me accurately track my running, cycling and now swimming without having a friend/training partner/coach watching over me to track progress. I have three tools which I use for running and cycling: Strava, Garmin Connect and Cyclemeter (for the swimming I enter the data manually). Just last week I bought a Garmin Swim watch for my pool workouts.

    So when I look at the data from the two websites, each site has similar reports but they also have other reports/graphs that the other doesn't have (though Garmin is catching up). With the data you can start to see some trends.

    The segments on strava are a huge winner in my opinion because for each segment you pass through you are automatically ranked against all the other people who have riden/run/walked that segment, but you can also see where you rank against yourself if you regularly ride through the segment (this is the best bit).

    "Random social" seems pointless to me. I've no interest in tweeted weight or steps or whatever. And that info is irrelevant to nearly all friends, who would see it without context or knowledge of goals.

    The conscious social (find a buddy) thing makes more sense. But only if that's your thing. Personally, I prefer to keep my goals private and to exercise "alone" (not technically alone, but without involving friends or family). I achieve more that way, including gaining more pleasure. Exercise becomes something for me that I don't have to share.

    I've been using fitbit for just over a month. Highly recommend it. I'm not trying to lose weight, I should add, just increase my general activity levels through the day in a basically sedentary job. The awareness it builds is great. I hadn't realised, for example, quite how little activity I was getting on days I worked in freelance projects at home and didn't have to commute to another place of work.

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