How to Choose an Activity Tracker

By Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN

You’ve heard all about how important physical activity is, not just for weight control but for many other aspects of good health. Perhaps you’ve tried to exercise regularly or at least walk more often. So why would you want some sort of monitor to track your every move? That’s what I used to think. But now, for myself and for many of my patients, I know the benefits.

Keeping Tabs on Your Movements
Can Have Multiple Health Benefits

Although American adults are walking more these days, less than half, about 47 percent, reach the government’s recommendations of at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of both. And more than this minimum brings even greater advantages.

Here’s the clincher: Only 16.3 percent of American adults reach the oft-heard recommendation to accumulate at least 10,000 steps a day. In fact, over 36 percent qualify as sedentary, which is defined as less than 5,000 steps a day.

How can nearly half of Americans get 30 minutes of activity on most days, yet accumulate steps so much lower than you might think? If your day is largely spent sitting or at a low activity level, it takes more additional effort to reach levels of activity associated with health.

How will an activity tracker make a difference?
People who begin a pedometer-based walking program increase the steps they take by about 2,000 to 4,000 a day, corresponding to an extra one to two miles a day, according to an analysis of nine separate intervention trials. Another study analyzing intervention trial data from a different perspective links the use of pedometers with a 27 percent increase in physical activity.

The benefits depend on how a tracker is used. Just clipping a tracker on your wrist or your waist does not magically push you out the door.

The intervention trials that show benefits involve people who have signed up to be in a study focused on becoming more active and/or losing weight. What I have found about wearing a pedometer is that it provides two important things:

• It keeps you aware of your overall activity. Health benefits accrue even when physical activity occurs in blocks of 10 or 15 minutes, rather than all at once. It can be harder to keep track of these small blocks without a monitor.

• It addresses the problem most of us with sedentary jobs or lifestyles face, namely that even 30 minutes a day of physical activity may not be enough to reach levels of physical activity linked with good health. Even if you’re aiming at the lower end of an ideal range, tracking your steps may show that 30 minutes of walking is not enough to get you there. That’s what I found out.

What I learned from my use of a pedometer
• Working from home with no errands and “too busy” to take a walk resulted in less than 2000 steps (yikes!), including normal cooking and minimal chores, but no housecleaning or yard work.

• A typical work day at home plus a 30-minute walk with my dog came to 4,800 steps, which is still sedentary even with the additional walk.

• A work day at home plus a 30-minute walk without dog gave me 5,940 steps, no longer sedentary but still not at a level linked with best health.

• For the average person, a 30-minute walk is said to add 3,000 to 3,700 steps. My natural pace is quite brisk if I’m not deliberately slowing down or forced to change pace by my dog.

• A work day at home with one or two 10-minute walking breaks, plus a 30-minute walk with the dog, plus a 30-minute walk without dog, and with fast intervals added up to 10,400 to 12,110 steps.

• A day attending research conferences with meetings at the hotel I was staying produced only 1,000 steps by 5:00 pm. Seeing this very low number on my pedometer after meetings ended, I changed clothes and went for a walk, then walked to meet colleagues for dinner and walked back to hotel. Day-end total: 10,011 steps

• On a vacation, a day with no scheduled exercise but lots of walking as part of daily activities allowed me to accumulate 18,883 steps.

How to choose the right tracker?
First up: know what you want and what’s fluff. If you try using a physical activity tracker for the first time, you’ve got many options.

Devices include bands worn around your arm or your wrist, models integrated into a watch, apps that use your smart phone’s built-in tracker, and pedometers that you clip on your belt or place in your pocket.

Ask yourself what you will track. The most basic option is a simple step-counter. Depending on the device you choose, you can also track total distances moved, time in moderate to vigorous activity, heart rate, sleep time (and possibly quality), and calories burned (either in activity or a total for the day).

The question is what you will you do with the information you get. Some trackers have a memory that stores data for 7 to 30 days. Others are able to download what you track to store and display it on your smart phone or computer, and perhaps share it with a fitness coach or health professional. Some link to social media, so you can share your progress with your friends.

Trackers also vary in battery life and water resistance. Another issue is price. How much do you want to spend? You can buy a simple pedometer for $5.00, but these cheap models usually don’t have a long lifespan and can be off on step count by up to 45 percent. Some use a mechanism that needs to hang straight from a belt, which means that people with large waists or apple shape figures have greater difficulty getting accurate information. But for about twenty dollars, you can get a reliable pedometer from fitness stores or online.

Trackers that add more features, including a GPS system, or allowing you to wirelessly transfer data to and from other devices via Bluetooth can cost $75.00 to over $300.00. These more sophisticated trackers are generally accurate, giving step and distance estimates within 10 to 15 percent of accuracy of research-quality devices.

The point is that if you’re planning to use a tracker seriously, simply buying the cheapest device is a waste of money, since you probably won’t get accurate information. However, don’t spend extra for features you won’t use.

Test for accuracy
For testing, go to a space where you can walk at your normal pace and clip the pedometer on your belt or waistband above one of your knees, or place in your pocket if it’s a model designed to work that way. Then reset the pedometer to “0” and close its cover (if applicable). Walk 20 steps. Open the device carefully so you don’t jar it, and check the reading.

Ideally, the reading will be within a 5 percent error rate, which would mean a number between 19 and 21. A 10 percent error rate is still reasonable, corresponding to 18 or 22 steps when you really walked 20. If it’s off by more than that, readjust its position and give it a couple more tries. If results remain consistent, choose another option.

Will a tracker help me lose weight?
Without changes in eating habits, people in short-term intervention studies using pedometers to help them add 2000 to 4000 additional daily steps averaged one to two pounds of weight loss in 10 weeks with a typical range among of 0 to 9 pounds. Since most adults gain one to two pounds a year, if an activity tracker helped to meet walking recommendations and no weight gain took place, that would be considered a success.

Using an activity tracker’s calorie calculations to guide how much you can eat may be counter-productive. This seems to be the source of the stories that caught so many people’s attention, claiming that using an activity tracker led them to gain weight. Several of my colleagues reported that such devices have provided calorie recommendations they consider inappropriately high compared to what they typically calculate for patients.

So many factors can affect how many calories you burn in a day. If you want help identifying a calorie range that’s right for you, I encourage you to see a dietitian or nutritionist. If you want to lose weight on your own, try tracking what you’re eating now and then gradually cut back by 500 to 1000 calories. Of course, the goal is to do this in a way that reduces less healthful food intake and still maintains the health-promoting nutrition you need.

The bottom line
A pedometer can’t do magic, but it can increase your awareness of your activity level and allow you to track your progress toward a specific goal, and (perhaps most importantly) increase your self-confidence that you can achieve a healthy level of physical fitness. Finding an accurate physical activity tracker does not guarantee better health benefits. How you use your pedometer or other tracker devices can make a tremendous difference in the results you get.

References
Bravata, DM et al. Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health. A Systematic Review. JAMA. 2007; 298(19)2296.

Richardson, CR et al. A Meta-Analysis of Pedometer-Based Walking Interventions and Weight Loss. Ann Fam Med. 2008; 6:69.

Lee J-M, Young-Won MS, Welk GJ. TRACK IT: Validity and Utility of Consumer-Based Physical Activity Monitors. ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal. 2014; 18(4):16-21.

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian who promotes healthy eating as a syndicated nutrition news columnist, speaker and consultant, bringing special expertise in cancer prevention and how it fits within overall wellness efforts. Karen can be contacted about speaking engagements at karen@karencollinsnutrition.com. For more information, please visit http://www.karencollinsnutrition.com

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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