Tech + Health

12.27.13

Fitness Tracker 101: Everything You Need to Know About Your New Gadget

So Santa brought you a Fitbit. Or a Jawbone UP. Or a Smart Sock. Merry Christmas! Now get to work. Here are 6 quick things to know before you get started.

This week, thousands of Americans awoke to a shiny new fitness tracker in their stocking, joining the rapidly-growing, multibillion dollar wearable fitness community.

Whether you received a Fitbit, a Jawbone UP, Smart Socks or something else, here are a few quick things to get you started on your journey to bettering your health and increasing your physical fitness — or at the very least sound like you know what you’re talking about when someone asks you about that weird watch you wear.

1. Learn what your fitness tracker does and what it doesnt. A variety of fitness trackers are available on the market right now and they’ve all got their pros and cons. Presumably, you’ve received the right one for your lifestyle, but a quick review might be worth it. If you’re in the right place, take some time to learn just all your tracker does. Most of them handle the basics—the number of steps you take each day, how far you walk—but others do much more. Gadgets like the Jawbone UP and the Fitbit Force monitor your sleep cycle, while the Polar Loop and the Basis 1 measure heart rate to help you understand stress levels (and inducers) throughout the day. Some, like Smart Socks, measure strike speed and heel placement for runner trying to get that next PR. Spend an hour getting to know your new tracker so you can get the most out of it.

It’s important to note here that even the smartest in smart fitness tech devices come with limitations. If you’re an avid runner, your watch may have a difficult time tallying your total distance and step count on your daily run due to the increase in your stride length.  Users that travel regularly may see a spike in the altimeter count even if they don’t take the stairs due to flight altitude. Understanding this will help in measuring your progress later.

2. Put it on; wear it constantly. Your fitness tracker is designed to report your specific movements and activities each day. In order to receive the best picture of your personal health and fitness level you need to wear it right. Some, such as the Nike+ FuelBand, are designed to be worn on your wrist while others, the Withings Pulse and Fitbug Orb included, are meant to be clipped onto your clothing. These devices are constantly receiving and transmitting data about your daily life (more on that later), and the more information you provide it the better you’ll be understand important aspects of your health.

3. Understand your baseline. Like the adage goes, in order to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. This is true in health, as well. Start by linking your device to your smartphone or computer and entering the basics—height, weight, etc. Next, take a few typical days of your life (i.e. not a week you’re on vacation or home sick) and use them as a baseline for your health level. Wear your tracker and understand where you stack up. So you’re only active 10 minutes a day, you say? That’s one area you can improve. Average walking ten miles a day thanks to your commute?  You’re an overachiever.  Do note: make sure you’re being honest here. Most trackers sync with your smartphone to allow you to log food and drink intake each day. Don’t lie to yourself. This is all part of using your tracker effectively.

4. Set your health goals. Make sure this is a realistic goal. For example, unless you’re Matthew Mcconaughey prepping for the Dallas Buyers Club, it’s going to be pretty difficult to drop 25 lbs in one month. Instead, set a challenging but ultimately attainable goal. Try tying this to something you learned in your baseline assessment. Maybe you found out you only walk 2,000 steps a day—well under the CDC’s recommended daily steps. Try taking the stairs at work instead of the elevator or park a little further at the grocery, then go up from there.

5. Get moving. This is the most important part of using your new tracker. Most likely you received this gift to increase your physical performance and personal health—now make sure you’re using it to help you do that. If not, you just look like you’re wearing a weird accessory.

6. Log your progress. The best trackers work with your smartphone to let you log and check in with your progress. My personal favorite—the FitBit Force, tallies calorie intake according to a pre-established daily level tied to a weight-loss goal. Check in regularly to stay on track and committed.

That’s it! Enjoy your new tracker.

The cool thing is this trend is only getting started.

Each day, millions of Americans contribute mountains of data about their personal health habits, creating an intricate picture of who’s doing what and where. With researchers predicting that the sale of personal health trackers will increase threefold over the next five years, this picture is going to get even more precise, allowing companies to better customize their products to users.

One tracker, the Jawbone UP 24 (anticipated or broad release sometime in 2014) will take a user’s data and suggest ways he can do better for himself tomorrow.

But the UP 24 is just one example of smarter fit tech to come.

Companies are barely starting to process the vast amount of data obtained from users and are developing new ways to slice this data to develop a more tailored user experience. It’s possible we’ll start to see fitness trackers that recommend local gym classes based on your activity goals, or stores that even stock athletic apparel based on the favorite workouts of regional users, solidifying their place on users Christmas lists for years to come.