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January 31, 2022

Setting goals with a fitness tracker can help keep people motivated to exercise, experts say

Combining a monitoring device with a program that is designed to change behavior offers the best results

Fitness Exercise
Fitness trackers Phi Nguyễn/Pixabay

In a recent study, researchers found that monitoring exercise through a phone app, smartwatch or a Fitbit increased the activity of more than 16,000 participants by about 1,235 steps a day.

Fitness trackers have been a popular trend for years, but how do you know if you are using them in the way to get the best results?

Health experts say they serve as a good monitoring tool to keep people motivated as they try to exercise more, but consistency of use is the key to success.

In a new, comprehensive study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found that monitoring exercise through a phone app, smartwatch or a Fitbit increased the activity of more than 16,000 participants by about 1,235 steps a day. Data was compiled from 121 randomized control trials and 141 study comparisons.

Study participants also were able to boost their moderate and vigorous exercise by 48.5 minutes a week. The researchers did not observe any significant difference in sedentary time.

"People who use activity monitors and wearables are more active than people that do not," Rasmus Tolstrup Larsen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen and a consultant at IQVIA Healthcare, told CNN.

"These effects are highly relevant in terms of health and risk of diseases, especially among people who are only moderately active or do not meet current guidelines for physical activity." 

He explained that by providing direct feedback, these fitness monitors can help encourage the behavioral changes needed for healthier behaviors to stick.

Here are some tips from the experts on how to get the most out of a fitness tracker.

1. Use fitness trackers in combination with a program aimed at changing behavior. Studies have shown that using a fitness tracker while participating in a program that offer rewards and incentives for changed behavior offers better results than just monitoring your activity alone.

One study from Penn Medicine and Deloitte Consulting found that adding more gaming elements to wearable devices, including collaboration, different points and levels, and competition, encourages more sustainable behavioral change.

2. Set specific goals for daily steps to hold yourself accountable. Turn it into a little competition with yourself to motivate yourself to keep pushing harder.

3. Make sure you purchase the right device to meet your individual needs. Ask yourself what kind of data you need to best track your progress. Are you simply wanting an easy way to count steps or are you looking for more detailed measurements?

Some fitness trackers also will measure other metrics such as calorie counting, heart rate and sleep data. Always do your research first.

4. Wear it every day, all day. One 2016 survey found that almost 30% of fitness tracker users stop using their devices because they no longer find them useful.

5. Be realistic and kind to yourself. Don't set goals that are either so easy that you lose interest or too high that you lose confidence and give up. Focus on your overall progress instead of getting caught up in all the numbers.

Accept that there will be days that life gets in the way of exercising. Whether it is because of illness, vacation or work and family responsibilities, you might not always be able to reach your daily goals. Remember that tomorrow is a new day.

6. Sync with other apps that measure health metrics such as blood pressure and blood glucose levels. Your physical activity is only one component of your overall health. When you collect data on other metrics you can get a more complete picture of your health.

7. Update your progress regularly. Gaining or losing weight can change your training statistics so make sure you keep your data up-to-date as much as possible. Spend time each day reviewing your results and adjusting your goals as needed. Also make sure your tracker is fully charged for the next day.

8. Build a supportive community by joining a fitness program or by simply adding friends to your fitness app. Sharing your progress with others who are supportive can motivate you to work harder.

Even friendly competitions can light the fire under you. Just don't become laser focused on comparing your results to others. Everyone's fitness journey is different.

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