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2014-05-09 15.38.00

Spring has sprung, the days are getting longer, and that means it’s easier to get out and get active. As a geek, I loved the idea of strapping on a fitness tracker and getting more active. The idea of having a device that would track how much I moved around, and used a smartphone app to show how fit I was, seemed like a fantastic idea. Now, after having been a couch potato with a Fitbit, as well as someone who’s getting more fit by the day, I have a few insights about how to get the most out of one of these newfangled wearables.

Wearing a fitness tracker isn’t a panacea. Strapping on a FuelBand won’t automatically turn a person from a desk jockey into a marathoner. While logging steps can be a good motivator to get out and get active at first, I know plenty of people who have dropped their tracker in a dresser drawer a few months after purchase. Since these devices often cost more than $100, that’s not a great return on investment. I’m about a year and a half into my tenure using a fitness tracker, and here are my 5 tips for keeping it on, keeping moving, and getting fit:

1. Pick a form factor that works for you

simple.b-dis-jpg.h87e4c13fb85851639215e7c34e3e984d.packWhile clip-on fitness trackers like the Fitbit One and the Withings Pulse offer a discreet (and often more accurate) way to track activity compared to wrist-mounted trackers like the Fitbit Flex, Nike Fuelband and Jawbone Up, I’ve found it’s easy to leave them clipped to the wrong pair of pants, or forget to put them on in the morning.

At the same time, wrist-mounted trackers can be an iffy fashion statement, especially as the weather shifts towards encouraging short-sleeved tops. Picking a device that you’ll be comfortable wearing all day is key to actually wanting to hold on to it in the long run.

In a similar vein, different devices have vastly different feature sets. I care about sleep tracking alongside my step counts, so that automatically rules out certain devices. The Wirecutter has a really good overview of the best trackers on the market and what they bring to the table, and Amazon has a special section devoted to wearable tech that’s also helpful.

2. Don’t expect perfect results

simple.b-dis-jpg.ha3d5e11894e1f7e3e9b3a610502d178a.packMost fitness trackers report supposedly exact step counts, but a number of reviews have found that none of them can agree on how many steps someone takes during a day. What that means is that while tiny activity differences shouldn’t be taken as a gospel truth, fitness trackers are generally good at showing you patterns of activity.

Ultimately, those patterns, not tiny differences in metrics, are what I’ve found to be the most useful about wearing a fitness tracker. After all, a few hundred steps here or there probably won’t matter all that much in the long run. But people who want a perfect, precise record of their daily activity will probably be disappointed.

3. Gather data, then set your goals

mg-06-lgEveryone’s lives are different: I work from home, which means I need to actually make a significant effort to get myself active. That’s a far cry from someone who walks for 3 miles a day getting to and from work.

Knowing what your baseline activity level is provides a good framework for understanding when and how you can improve. For me, actually getting 10,000 steps a day means that I have to dedicate about an hour of my day to taking one or more walks. If I were to just go about my daily routine, I take around 2,500 steps in a typical day.

When I decided to focus on getting fit, trying to reach 10,000 steps a day having lived with that routine was an exercise in futility. So, I started easy: I wanted to get 4,000 steps in on a weekday, and 8,000 in on a weekend. From there, I just started scaling up naturally. I got used to taking time for my fitness, and I’m now consistently hitting 10,000 steps on a weekday and 14,000 on a weekend.

While it’s tempting to try and instantly mold yourself into your tracker’s expectations, I’ve had much better results starting small and then trying to do more a little bit at a time.

4. Check in with your data

up-family-02-hiCollecting data about how much I walk during a day is only useful if I’m aware of it. There were whole months last year when I wouldn’t pay attention to my Fitbit app, and my fitness suffered for it. While I have great data showing just how lazy I was, it didn’t actually do anything to help me get fit, or remind me to get a move on.

While some trackers provide alerts to try and get their wearers moving after periods of remaining sedentary, I’ve found that making it a habit to check in on how many steps I’ve taken in a day right before I go to bed has helped me stay as active as I want to be. The same thing goes for whatever metric you’d prefer to track: if you don’t keep up with the data, it’s not being as useful as possible for you.

5. Recruit your friends

Many of these fitness trackers have an added social component that allows users to track how they stack up against their friends. Working out gets easier with a buddy, and it can be fun to compete with people who are aiming for the same level of activity you are. I’ve found that having someone a few hundred steps ahead of you on the leaderboard can be a great motivator to get off the couch and stroll around the neighborhood.

So, there you have it: 5 tips to get the most out of a new fitness tracker. Is there a piece of wisdom that I missed? Talk about it in the comments.

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