How to Harness Data as a Motivational Tool, Not a Distraction

Is too much data weighing you down? Experts share what numbers to keep an eye on — and what metrics you can ditch.

Data and Motivation


These days, fitness apps, activity trackers, and heart-rate monitors give health and fitness enthusiasts access to numbers galore. From pace to rank, hours slept to calories burned, quantitative data is just a click or tap away. 

On one hand, all this data can be seriously useful in and out of the gym, according to Haley Perlus Ph.D., sports and performance psychologist. “It gives people tools to continuously learn more about their bodies,” says Perlus. But on the other hand, these numbers can also make it more difficult to stay present during your workouts, as well as during other life moments such as dinner dates, dog walks, and work meetings. This over-reliance on and awareness of data doesn’t come without it’s drawbacks for those looking to develop a happy, healthy, harmonious relationship to movement. 

So, how can you use this data to keep you motivated, not demoralized? Ahead, experts share how to harness all that juicy data for good, dish some harsh reality on just how (in)accurate some of this insight really is, and offer some signs that data is no longer serving your well-being. Plus, you’ll find a handful of data-free ways to track progress instead.

The Pros and Cons of Tracking Health and Fitness Data

Keeping tabs on your heart rate or how many steps you’ve taken can motivate you to continue to pursue your fitness and health goals each day, but health data has a dark side. It can also unknowingly discourage you or push you into obsessive behavior. 

Here, the potential good and bad of monitoring six different common metrics in health and wellness. 

1. Leaderboards

As any Peloton owner or CrossFit athlete knows, eyeing the leaderboard can provide a powerful push, encouraging you to keep after your classmates… but it can also be a real gut punch.  

As a general rule, leaderboards are most useful when you know the other people you’re competing against personally, says Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., owner of Beyond Fitness Online. “If you’re chasing down someone on a leaderboard who you don’t know, you could be putting yourself up against someone out of your league,” he says. This competition ultimately sets you up for a loss or worse, discourages you from attacking your fitness pursuits with the same confidence you had before the leaderboard.  

But even when you’re only chasing down your friends and frenemies, leaderboards can become dangerous, encouraging people to push too hard every single time they work out in that setting, says Daniels. While intensity is king at providing results, most people should cap their HIIT training sessions at three per week, he says. The rest of your training week should prioritize low-intensity, steady-state cardio (LISS), lower-intensity strength training,  or recovery workouts, which can improve your overall fitness level and cardiovascular capacity without furthering the damage to your muscle fibers.

“If you’re going to compete, it’s best to compete against yourself and your own numbers from previous workouts,” says Daniels. 

2. Running Pace

Whether you’re part of the Garmin, Apple, or Fitbit fan club, if you’re training on tread or trail, odds are you’ve got a wearable that gives you live access to your distance, time, current speed, and average pace. 

This intel can help hold someone accountable to their training plan for the day, giving them the insight they need to find their speed (or heart rate) sweet-spot, says Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S. After all, most 5K and marathon training plans will prescribe what your distance and pace should be when you lace up.

“But it’s also possible that knowing your pace will result in you always trying to push yourself to achieve the fastest pace,” says Gam. While there’s a time and place for speed (tempo running, for example), training plans incorporate slow(er) runs for a reason: They help increase your fitness base by requiring you to run on legs that are already tired, which conditions your leg muscles. Slower runs also require less recovery, as Shape previously reported.

“There should be times when you’re not focused on going at max pace (or on pace at all),” says Chelsea Long, M.S., C.S.C.S, exercise physiologist with the Hospital for Special Surgery's Tisch Sports Performance Center and HSS Sports Rehabilitation and Performance West Side in New York. So, if you find yourself judging yourself based on how fast you’re running, she recommends leaving the watch at home or challenging yourself not to look at your watch at all. 

“On the days you’re watch-free, try to settle into a natural rhythm where you stride along with your breathing,” she suggests.

3. Steps

Hands up if you’ve ever been told that you should be getting at least 10,0000 steps in a day. *Hands everywhere fly into the air.* Welp, that’s not really true — at least, not for everyone. 

“Many fitness trackers put 10,000 steps in as the baseline number of steps everyone should be hitting each day,” says Long. Trackers often award wearers with a “closed ring,” checkmark, or buzzing celebration if they hit the goal (or another self-determined goal if their choosing). But news flash: That 10,000 quota originated from a Japanese marketing campaign for the first commercial pedometer, and it’s an arbitrary number that was only chosen because it sounded catchy. Translation: Your mileage may vary (literally).   

“If your baseline of fitness is pretty low and you're sedentary, immediately trying to get to 10,000 steps a day is too much,” says Long. Actually, going from zero to 10,000 is going to do far more harm than good because your body aren’t yet conditioned enough to handle the mileage. Similarly, if you’re well-conditioned, 10,000 steps may not be enough for you to see additional health and fitness gains, notes Daniels.

 Gam’s recommendation: Rather than trying to hit the arbitrary 10,000 steps per day, let your tracker count your steps for a week to give you a baseline of how many steps you typically take per day. Then, try to increase it by 100 steps each day until you achieve the number of steps you and your medical provider deem appropriate. 

Research has found that just 7,000 steps a day is enough to decrease the risk of many chronic health conditions,” says Gam. So, odds are that’s the number your provider will suggest to start. 

4. Streaking

No, we’re not talking about the kind of streaking that requires you to strip your undies. This kind of streaking is about counting how many days in a row you’ve hit certain metric goals, such as steps, sleep, or activity.

The streak function on your tracker or connected fitness equipment is designed to encourage you to make decisions with your long-term goals in mind…even when you’d rather be doing anything else. 

“Streaks and habit tracking can do a good job at encouraging someone to maintain a consistent exercise routine,” says Gam. “The general population is not at risk of overtraining, so for them having something that motivates them to move daily is a good thing.” 

The fear, however, is that you miss a day and spiral into poor fitness and health habits. “Inevitably, someone will break a streak because life happens,” says Gam. What’s important is that one missed day doesn’t result in you completely ditching your healthy habits or, on the opposite end, being unnecessarily hard on yourself, she says. 

“I’d like anyone who gets down [on themselves] when they miss a day to know that research shows that one day off a habit doesn’t doom your progress,” she says. Indeed, one study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that people who missed their goal behavior for one day but picked it up again the very next day were still successful in cementing those habits. 

Your move: Adopt a ‘get back on the horse’ rule, suggests Gam. “Make it okay for you to break a streak for [a] day” by giving yourself major props when you start a new streak. “So when looking at your streak data, you should be just as proud of having several streaks with very short breaks, not just having one continuous unbroken streak,” she adds.

5. Sleep

More than one-third of adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And of those who are logging enough hours between the sheets, most could stand to get higher quality sleep, according to Chris Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution and medical director of Martha Jefferson Hospital’s Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, VA. “Very few people are prioritizing sleep in their life, and most of those who do prioritize sleep aren’t optimizing their sleep routines for the best sleep possible,” he says. 

One way to prioritize sleep quantity and quality is to invest in a sleep tracker. While the most popular sleep trackers are the wrist-worn ones, there are also sleep tracking apps and under-mattress trackers. “These devices can help you see just how few hours a night you’re actually sleeping, which can encourage you to begin to make more time for sleep,” says Dr. Winter. 

But — and this is important — if you notice that having access to insights about your sleep is stressing you out, ditch the sleep tracker altogether. “When you feel stressed, your stress hormone cortisol levels rise, which can negatively impact your ability to fall and stay asleep,” says Dr. Winter. In other words, ironically, stressing about not sleeping enough can keep you from sleeping enough.

At the end of the day (literally), you want to aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. “At its best, a sleep tracker will help realize just how important that much sleep is, but at its worst, it’ll rob you of the very sleep you’re trying to get,” says Dr. Winter. 

6. Calories Burned 

There is no shortage of tech designed to track the number of calories you’ve burned — but very few of them are accurate. 

“The calories burned data on wearable fitness trackers and the machines at the gym are inaccurate,” says Daniels frankly. How inaccurate? A team of researchers with Stanford University School of Medicine found that the calories burned estimates on most smart watches are off by at least 27 percent, while the American Council on Exercise estimates that calories burned data on cardio machines is off by 20 to 30 percent. So, if there’s any metric most people should forget about altogether, it’s calories burned, says Daniels. 

If you want a closer estimate of how many calories you really burned, use an online METS-to-calories calculator. (ICYDK: METS stands for metabolic equivalent for a task and essentially is a measure of how hard your body is working). These online calculators evaluate this energy expenditure (aka calorie burn) against your body weight and the duration of your activity.

For the less mathematically inclined, another option would be to work with a sports nutritionist who can help you figure out how much you should be consuming and moving each day, based on your specific goals, says Gam. 

It’s worth adding that for those prone to obsessive behaviors or in recovery from disordered eating, tracking calories burned can nudge your brain and body back to an unhealthy place. For these folks, choosing a watch that doesn’t have this ability or removing the metric from the watch home screen is a self-loving move.  

Activity Trackers Aren’t Even Really That Accurate 

Wearable fitness trackers and specifically wrist-based heart rate monitors — have shown to be especially inaccurate for people with darker skin tones, tattoos, or moles where these trackers often sit. 

Researchers from the American College of Cardiology found that “heart rate measurements were significantly less accurate in darker-skinned individuals compared with lighter-skinned individuals.” The main reason is that heart rate sensors in wrist-worn activity trackers typically use beams of light to gauge activity level, which doesn’t work as well on darker skin (which contains more melanin) because the skin absorbs more light, explain the researchers.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t utilize the data these wearables provide, says Daniels. But rather than taking the data as fact, you should use the numbers your tracker gives you as a personal baseline, he says. “That way you can use it to gauge how much work you’re doing based on how much you usually do.”

How to Know When to Ditch the Data

Two words: self reflection. 

Ultimately, everyone is going to have a different relationship with and reaction to the data they garner from a tracker, app, or leaderboard, says Gam. Figuring out yours is going to require a little self-savvy. 

She recommends asking yourself some of the following questions to understand your own relationship with the tracking tools: 

  1. How does the data impact my relationship with movement? 
  2. Does it change what I do when I’m working out?
  3. How do I feel about myself on the days I exercise, sleep, or walk less? How about more
  4. Does checking my data ever interfere with the rest of my life? 
  5. What kind of history do I have with counting, tracking, and monitoring? 

If your answers indicate that the quantitative data is motivational without being all-consuming, you're a good candidate for a wearable, says Gam. But if your answers suggest that your life and schedule revolve around data, you need to develop better boundaries with the device or ditch it altogether. You might, for example, make it a goal to spend two minutes reflecting on how you’re feeling when you wake up rather than immediately checking your wrist or phone to see how you slept, she says. 

Alternative Ways to Track Progress 

Numbers, rankings, and check-marks can be a great learning and progress tracking tool, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all, says Dr. Perlus. You can absolutely track whether you’re making progress toward your health, fitness, and wellness goals without them. 

For starters, you can achieve this simply by tuning into how you feel, suggests Gam. For example, how do you feel in your body while you’re running? Are you able to wake up feeling energized, without any aches or pains? At the end of the day, do you feel content with the choices you’ve made? For a person who is tuned into their body, the answers to these questions can provide similar insights to that of an app or watch. 

Paying attention to how your clothes fit, how the treads on your shoes have been worn, your overall mood, and ability to show up (or not) in your familial and romantic relationships can also help, she says. 

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the knowledge you have access to from fitness watches and tools can help you work toward your fitness and health goals, but it can also be damaging to your quality of life if wielded incorrectly. Pay attention to your own impulses, behaviors, motivations, thoughts and feelings when utilizing (or not) the aforementioned data points to figure out what works best for you. 

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