Why Your Fitness Tracker Isn’t Making You Thinner — Yet

Fitness Tracker Tricks
Photo: Pond5

If you were gifted a fitness tracker this year, we bet you had grand ambitions of using it to finally get fit. You swore you’d take 10,000 steps a day, log miles, track calories, count your zzz’s and maybe even monitor your heart rate.

Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, odds are that little device is now sitting abandoned at the bottom of your sock drawer. One survey indicates that more than half of people who purchase a wearable device eventually stop using it, and more than one-third do so within six months.

Sales of wearable devices are predicted to surpass $50 billion annually by 2018 — but are they really making us fitter? The key to getting the most from your tracker might lie in embracing a few simple strategies proven to elicit lasting behavioral changes, according to a new study published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Wearable devices have gotten a lot of interest in their potential impact to improve individuals’ health, but there’s been littlie evidence that these alone can help people sustain changes in behavior,” says study author Mitesh S. Patel, MD, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “The more important part is building effective strategies to engage individuals around these devices.”

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4 Ways to Get the Most from Your Tracker

Luckily, Patel and his colleagues have pinpointed some easy tricks that will help you make tracking a useful health habit — rather than one more thing that lands in the New Year’s Resolution graveyard.

1. Make Yourself an Offer You Can’t Refuse

Money talks when it comes to motivating yourself to reach your goals. Patel points out that behavioral economics tells us that people are irrational. For example, despite the fact that we all know it’s good for us to eat healthy and exercise, many of us don’t do it — unless we have something else to incentivize us. In other words, it might take some cold hard cash (or the threat of losing that cold hard cash) to finally drive us to take 10,000 steps per day, or finally lose weight. Patel advises finding a program that will instill you with anticipatory regret — anxiety over the consequences of your bad health decisions — to give you an extra push.

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One option? Set up an account on Stickk.com. Aim to hit certain goals on your tracker, and create a customized commitment contract on the site guaranteeing that you’ll lose a certain amount of money for every day you slack off. Whether you risk losing $1 per day or $10, the anticipated regret of not hitting your goal will keep you on your toes — literally.

2. Don’t Over-Accessorize

No matter how convenient it may seem to clip a tracker onto your shoe, belt or bra strap, you’re less likely to stick with using it if it requires adding an extra step to your daily routine. “When you ask someone to carry around a wearable, you’re asking them to do two things: Put it on and be more active,” Patel says. While only one to two percent of people currently tote around wearable devices, 65 percent of us own a smartphone — and bring it everywhere. “Many people carry smartphones everywhere they go, so they’re used to doing it,” Patel says. “If we really wanted to improve the health of the population, smartphone [trackers] are an easier place to start.” If you wear a watch everyday, a wrist tracker might work for you, too.

RELATED: Apple HealthKit: Trainer, Doctor and Nutritionist in One?

Fitness Tracker Tricks
Photo: Pond5

Get Realistic with Your Goals

Pledging to monitor your heart rate, sleep, macros and also reach a goal of 10,000 steps per day might be setting your sights too high. First of all, it might be best to leave tracking your vitals to a professional — there’s not much evidence suggesting that the average fitness tracker can accurately monitor blood pressure, blood sugar, or other medical markers, Patel says.

Devices that track your steps have proven to be fairly accurate — but the key to wearing them consistently might lie in being realistic about what you’d like to achieve, Patel says. “The average person walks 5,000 steps per day, and the average sedentary person walks less than 3,500 steps,” Patel says. “[You might] need to set more reasonable goals: 7,000 steps per day is equivalent to the federal guidelines for minimum physical activity.” If you find yourself seriously struggling to reach 10,000 steps per day, don’t chuck your tracker and give up. Aim for a smaller number and gradually work your way up. .

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4. Don’t Go It Alone

Find yourself rolling your eyes when friends share Nike+ posts every time they log miles? Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. People who share their tracking results are getting valuable social reinforcement from those Instagram posts. “When you post that you ran however many miles and get positive feedback that’s helpful,” Patel says.

Not into publicly sharing your stats with strangers? Grab a few tracker-owning friends, and set goals together. “If whatever you’re aiming for is contingent on everyone on the team walking a minimum level off steps, you’ll feel accountable to teammates and that’s very motivating,” Patel says.

If some of your friends also unwrapped trackers this year, apps for devices like Up by Jawbone allow you to form teams to work towards goals. Those who have at least three or more people on their squad tend to move at least 10 extra miles per month, according to Jawbone. FitBit’s app allows you and your friends to compete on a “leaderboard,” another motivating force that will help you claw your way towards your fitness goals.

“I think wearable devices’ technology will improve over time — and they will become more affordable,” Patel says. “The most important thing is less about which tracker you’re using, or the features [it has], but more about how are you using them.”

What’s your trick for remembering to use your tracker? Tell us in the comments section.

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