It can do more than just count your steps

So, either as a gift from a well-meaning relative or as a self-investment, you now have a fitness tracker. Whatever the model you’re now sporting around your wrist, each acts as a great way to up motivation levels for reaching a new goal for you, whether that’s getting started with running or just generally increasing your daily movement if you sit in front of a screen for hours on end. After all, there are loads of benefits to exercise, including being an excellent resource to help with your health and wellbeing.

All this considered, you probably have one thing on your mind right now: how do I get the most out of my new piece of wearable tech? Here’s how.

Understanding your fitness tracker

Activity trackers have come a long way since the days of one-size-fits-all, old school pedometers. Today’s selection comes in a range of sizes, styles and colours to suit every exercise level and fashion taste and are brimming with features for personalising your workout routine. As a result, (as you’ll probably have seen when browsing for one online), there are several to choose from and all with different capabilities.

What unites them though, is the fact that they’re all a piece of technology worn around the wrist, like a watch, to measure various bits of biometric data which can then be analysed via the features on your tracker or an app on your phone. The hope is that this will motivate people towards, and help them maintain, their fitness goals.

On a basic level, a fitness tracker will keep track of your step count and heart rate, but those aren’t the only things they can do. In terms of health stuff, they can also track your sleeping patterns, approximate how many calories you’ve burnt and keep track of the amount of oxygen in your blood. If your tracker is GPS-enabled, it will also be able to track where you’ve been while wearing it. Some are better described as smartwatches than fitness trackers: certain ones can also store and play music, receive call and text notifications and be used to pay for things in that contactless way we are now all increasingly familiar with!

How to understand fitness tracker calorie calculations

Generally, the way many fitness trackers count calories burned is an estimation based on data you’ve provided and information collected when you’re working out and at rest.

For example, even if you’re doing nothing, most fitness trackers will show you as burning calories because of something called your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is an estimate of how much energy your body uses when at rest or when you’re not doing anything particularly strenuous. It makes a stab at what your BMR is from the data you put in when you made your profile of things like height, gender, weight and age.

Another thing some models (such as Fitbit Versa and the Fitbit Inspire HR) use to estimate the calories you burn is your heart rate. During exercise, your heart rate increases, which means a faster metabolic rate, whereas when you’re not exercising, your heart rate is lower, so you burn calories at a slower rate. In addition to this, it will take into account your step count and, if you log any activities into the app, an estimate of the calorie burn based on what the activity was and how long you were doing it. However, it’s worth nothing that if you do that it can falsely inflate your calorie burn since your BMR will also be included alongside it.

Lastly, many also allow you to log foods you’ve consumed, which combines with the count of calories burned to give you a more accurate estimation of where you’re at!

Understanding pace on fitness trackers

Your pace is how long it takes for you to cover certain distances – how fast you run, basically. A GPS-enabled fitness tracker will obviously be the most accurate at measuring your pace. To help improve your pace, it’s best to start slow so as not to exhaust yourself too soon (as tempting as it is to bolt out the door). It’s also a good idea to take shorter strides with a more rapid foot turnover as opposed to massive strides. This will help you keep an upright posture and relax your back muscles, leading to better hip alignment. Don’t be scared to take walking breaks, either. And don’t forget to do some warm-up exercises beforehand to keep risk of injury to a minimum and check in with yourself before you start your run: do you need the loo? Are you hydrated? Is a headache coming on? Are your shoes tied properly? It will save you time later. Lastly, make sure you remember to stretch out after you exercise.

Understanding fitness tracker sleep data

Many fitness trackers now have functionality to track your sleep through a combination of your movement (or lack of it) and your heart rate. The specifics of these measurements are used to understand what stage of sleep you’re in.

There are two types of sleep: non-rapid eye movement sleep (non-REM), which includes the stages of light sleep and deep sleep, and rapid eye movement sleep (REM), which is associated with vivid dreams. It’s your heart rate variability (the beat-to-beat changes of your heart rate) that shows which stage of sleep you’re in as it fluctuates when you go between stages. Too little deep sleep and you might still feel tired when you wake up. If you wake up suddenly, you’ll likely be losing out on REM sleep, which can lead to that groggy morning feeling. But, too much REM sleep can leave you angry and irritable. If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, have no fear, there’s help at hand. Trackers like the Fitbit, provide a sleep score via the Fitbit app that you download to your phone to show what sort of sleep you’re lacking – or getting too much of.

This awareness can be incredibly helpful in our experience for fine-tuning our bedtime routine and therefore improving the quality of our shut-eye, whether that’s making changes to our sleep hygiene (for example, keeping to a consistent sleep schedule and keeping our bedroom as dark, cool and blue light-free as possible) or spurring us on to find ways to relax when it’s tricky to switch off.

With fitness trackers getting more sophisticated by the minute, it’ll be exciting to see the strides tech takes in the coming year. No doubt, more of us will be sporting them both in and out of the gym as they continue to push boundaries when it comes to personalisation, style and practicality.