Next time you’re working out—or even just walking down the block—look at the people around you: One in five American adults is wearing a smartwatch or wearable fitness tracker, according to a Pew Research Center survey from January 2020. These wrist-based supercomputers track all kinds of data related to our bodies.
But, at the end of the day, they’re still computers. That means it’s your job to be smart about how you’re consuming that data and letting it affect your daily habits—in other words, mindfully selecting and tracking metrics as opposed to mindlessly looking at a bunch of them and not doing anything useful with the data.
Below, how to do that, according to wellness pros.
Picking Your Metrics
- Pay attention to heart rate trends.
During workouts, or even when you go for a brisk walk, your heart rate should be elevated as you challenge it with more intense activity. (Learn why walking is the most underrated form of exercise.) And once you record 150 minutes of elevated heart rate activity (eHR) in a week, you’ll earn a reward from the Paceline App; as you get fitter, you should be able to perform that same effort at a lower, but still elevated, heart rate. Paceline recommends 150 minutes of eHR a week because at about that amount of exercise, people seem to maintain good cardiovascular health. And, individuals who are physically active for about 150 minutes per week have an estimated 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality (basically, any cause of death) than those who are not active, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Heart rate sensors also record your resting heart rate, or the number of times each minute that your heart beats at rest (ideally, right when you wake up in the morning). “Monitoring your resting heart rate each day can help you notice trends or spikes that can be indicative of things like getting more cardiovascularly fit (trending down over a longer period of time) or being under an unusually high amount of stress (spiking up relatively quickly),” says Esther Avant, a certified sports nutritionist, nutrition coach, and ACE-certified personal trainer. A spike can also be caused by a number of things, from drinking alcohol to sleeping at a higher elevation. (Hint: Looking to cut back on drinking alcohol? Consider a non-alcoholic alternative like a brew from Athletic Brewing Company. Via Paceline, you can get $10 off two or more 6-packs when you hit your streak.)
2. Count (the right number of) steps.
Sedentary behavior is a major problem in the US, and steps—i.e. consistent movement throughout the day—are an easy way to offset the negative effects of too much sitting. That’s how the daily 10,000 steps a day recommendation you always hear came about, but consistently hitting anywhere between 6,000 to 10,000 steps is sufficient, according Avant. (Research published in 2019 in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that people who walk less than 4,000 steps per day become resistant to the metabolic benefits of exercise.) “It requires being a bit intentional about moving throughout the day, which promotes an active and healthy lifestyle without being so time-consuming that it becomes unrealistic,” says Avant. Many trackers also allow you to set reminders to get up and move every hour.
- Evaluate your sleep.
Sleep tracking has become a major selling point for fitness trackers, since sleep is considered the single most important factor in exercise recovery, according to research from the International Journal of Sports Medicine. But instead of getting caught up in a sleep score generated by your device or the granular data it generates on sleep stages, look at your sleep efficiency, says Ben Dickstein, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in insomnia. “This is the amount of time that you’re asleep divided by your total time in bed,” he explains. For example, if you give yourself 8.5 hours to sleep and actually sleep for eight hours of that, your efficiency is 94 percent—which is excellent. “This number should ideally be 85 percent or higher. When it’s lower than 80 percent, it means that your sleep is not adequately consolidated—which is problematic because deep, restorative sleep requires consolidated blocks of time.”
Tracking Them Mindfully
- Start by focusing on just one metric.
Fitness trackers collect so. much. data. And “if you have too many things you want to accomplish at the same time, you may get overwhelmed,” says Jeanette Kimszal, a registered dietitian nutritionist. If you want to use your tracker to develop healthier habits, it’s better to follow just one metric at a time: Figure out what you’re tracking (like elevated heart rate activity or sleep efficiency) and what you’re aiming for (150 minutes a week, 85% or better), then look into concrete actions you can take to improve those metrics, suggests Caroline Grainger, an ISSA-certified personal trainer at FitnessTrainer Online Personal Trainers. “Once you’ve set your goals and decided how you’re going to reach them, you can watch your performance metrics for improvement,” says Grainger. “If you don’t see it, you can adjust your approach.”
- Track your habits along with your biometrics.
While your tracker may tell you your resting heart rate is higher than normal one morning, it can’t tell you if that’s because you had a few cocktails last night or because you’re coming down with a cold. For more nuanced insights into what’s happening inside your body, use wearable tech as a supplement to a health journal, suggests Tyler Read, a NASM-certified personal trainer. Pay attention to metrics within the context of what you’re doing each day—for example, did you have a bad night’s sleep before an early run? “If you can see how your daily activities impact your quality of sleep or heart rate, you can use this data to help you make choices that will optimize your health and performance,” Read explains.