With more fitness watches, technical gear and health apps on the market than ever before, users have every opportunity to gain deeper insights into their daily habits, a revolution known as the “quantified self.” But while these tracking devices might be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, the amount of data they provide can seem limitless. In fact, between steps taken, calories burned, hours slept, and many more metrics, sifting through the numbers can be more overwhelming than navigating the gym in January.
So which metrics are most valuable when it comes to changing habits and getting closer to your health and fitness goals? To help you make the most of your data, we’ve broken down the four main metrics measured by most fitness trackers, what they actually mean, and how to start putting them to better use.
Made to Measure
1. Steps Taken
Are you reliant on the bus, car or train to get from point A to B to C each day? You’re not alone. Americans, on average, take only about 5,117 steps per day, just over half the recommended 10,000 steps to qualify as “active.” To help increase overall movement throughout the day, most fitness trackers measure total steps taken (similar to a pedometer).
“If people know what moving more looks and feels like, they will come to know what too little movement looks and feels like as well.”
What It Really Means: While a higher number of steps taken per day has been correlated with a more favorable body composition, users shouldn’t take on the “10,000 or bust” philosophy for a few reasons. For one, fitness trackers can vary in accuracy with error percentages ranging from three to 30 percent, making it hard to nail down exactly how many steps you’ve taken throughout the day. Driving along bumpy roads or even just fidgeting at your desk can tally unearned steps as well. Differing opinions also exist as to exactly how many steps are recommended for optimal health, as that target will vary based on age, fitness level and other factors.
Make It More Meaningful: Rather than equating success with a particular number, use this metric to compare activity levels from one day to the next. Joe Vennare, personal trainer and co-founder of Hybrid Athlete, says that while he doesn’t necessarily factor steps per day in a training program, it can certainly help. According to Vennare, “If people know what moving more looks and feels like, they will come to know what too little movement looks and feels like as well.” He suggests using steps per day as a benchmark to become more active — not as a definitive measure of success. While 10,000 might be a great eventual goal, aim to take a few hundred more steps each day, and climb your way up from there, Vennare says.
2. Sleep Quality
Sleeping might seem simple enough — just crawl into bed at the end of the night, and snooze away until morning, right? Not if you’re one of the 40 million Americans suffering from sleep-related disorders each year. Even if you would consider yourself a normal sleeper, chances are you have had at least a few restless nights. But lack of sleep does more than just jack up your caffeine requirements the following day. Difficulty sleeping has been linked to an increased risk of obesity in adults. To make matters worse, individuals suffering from lack of shut-eye are more prone to poor decision making, including snacking on higher-calorie foods.
The end goal is to develop a sleeping routine that fits your needs and lifestyle.
What It Really Means: Unfortunately, fitness trackers can’t exactly tell whether you’re asleep or not (that would require measuring brain waves). Instead, most trackers rely on measuring movement and associate a decrease in movement with sleep. However, it’s possible to lie perfectly still in bed and still not get a wink of shuteye. While this feature might not offer a direct measurement of your time spent catching zzz’s, it can help you determine when you’re sound asleep or tossing and turning by monitoring movement levels.
Make It More Meaningful: Don’t fret over the actual number of hours slept during the night as that metric can vary in accuracy. Instead, use the sleep tracker data to identify how many times you tossed and turned once you hit the hay. While you might think you were out cold, the data might show otherwise. The end goal is to develop a sleeping routine that fits your needs and lifestyle. Whereas some individuals might be able to eat a full meal directly before bed, it might cause you to toss and turn all night. By looking at how many times you moved around while sleeping, you can help to solidify a routine and be on your way to a better night of rest. For starters, try removing the TV from your room and eliminating electronics from your nightly routine 30 minutes prior to bedtime.
3. Calories Burned
The “calories in vs. calories out” equation for obtaining a lean physique can make this metric a major focus point. To determine this number, trackers take into account overall activity along with the user’s height, weight and age. All of this information is then plugged into an equation that estimates the total calories burned throughout the day. Similar to the readings on exercise equipment, these measurements can vary in accuracy. A true measure of caloric burn requires a heart rate monitor (missing from most trackers). While the algorithms used by fitness trackers have improved over the past several years, users shouldn’t rely on this data as the definitive source for how many calories they have burned.
What It Really Means: Whereas fitness trackers can’t nail down the exact number of calories you burned in a given day, the number can be used to gauge overall activity. In general, a higher amount of calories burned implies a higher activity level whether that’s by exercising or just doing more household chores and taking the stairs.
Make It More Meaningful: Track your diet for several days and find out how many calories you’re taking in on average. If you’re consuming well above the amount your tracker indicates you’re burning, you’ll likely want to curtail your eating habits or bump up your activity. Outside of simply helping to match your input to your output, use the metric to help increase your movement throughout the day. Try riding your bike to work or walking places whenever possible. Then, check out how many extra calories you burned. Seeing how much that extra half a mile at lunch influences your bottom line can have a big boost on motivation!
4. Minutes of Activity/Inactivity
You might not notice when you’ve been inactive for 30-plus minutes in a row, but most fitness trackers can. Since longer periods of inactivity are associated with a potentially shortened lifespan, tracking devices — at their best — can encourage users to get active, and thus minimize the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Eric Bach, personal trainer and founder of Bach Performance, adds that inactivity (especially long periods of sitting) can also wreak havoc on your posture, causing issues like back pain and shoulder dysfunction.
In the end, it’s up to you to translate the information into action.
What It Really Means: Fitness trackers use motion sensors to determine when you’ve been sitting for too long. A consistent dip in motion is associated with inactivity (meaning it’s time to move!). To keep you off your seat and on your feet, many trackers will even vibrate after a certain timeframe of inactivity.
Make It More Meaningful: While trackers might offer a great resource to help keep you honest, you don’t need one to tell you when you’ve been sitting for too long. If you have access to a tracker, you can use it to alert you when you’ve been inactive or seated for 30 to 45 minutes. When the device sounds off, that’s your signal to get up, take a walk around the block, do some deskside burpees (fitness first!), or whatever your 9-to-5 will allow. Outside of the obvious health benefits that come with greater activity, these mini-breaks can also boost productivity making you more successful when you do sit back down. For those who don’t have access to a fitness tracker, Bach encourages the use of timers or phone alarms for the same effect.
Fitness trackers offer up an overwhelming amount of data translating our daily lives into colorful charts and graphs that can help us better understand patterns in our health. But while the gadgets — and the data they provide — might be cool to have, on their own they’re far from a quick fix for poor health habits. In the end, it’s up to you to translate the information into action. Rather than just relegating your fitness to a slew of numbers, focus on a small handful of metrics and create meaningful strategies to directly improve your health. After all, you aren’t a character in the Matrix so it’s impossible for a tracker to quantify all of the things that make you… you!