You use your fitness tracker to analyze your sleep and obsess over steps—now see how to put those health stats into perspective
Are you the proud owner of a shiny, feature-packed fitness tracker? Huzzah! You're on the path to being a stronger, fitter, more toned version of yourself. Fitness victory is yours if you just strap it on and go: You will go further and faster than you’ve ever gone before, and you’re doing it in style.
That’s the optimistic side of your brain talking—and, hey, we like your confidence, but it’s time for a reality check. The sober truth: Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania found that most wearable devices actually fail to make people fitter. This, coupled with the fact that one-third of device owners stop using their trackers after just six months, can paint a troublesome outlook for wearable users. The real problem, though, according to the Penn study authors, is the gap between actually recording your information and changing your behavior. (Learn The Right Way to Use Your Fitness Tracker and you're well on your way.)
Some fitness trackers, like the Microsoft Band, are trying to bridge that gap by learning your daily patterns over time and suggesting “insights” as to how you can improve, based on the data it has collected on you. Still, even the most advanced trackers on the market are shy of the artificial intelligence (AI) needed to help many people understand what all the numbers their tracker amasses really mean. Having the data to know yourself is great, but understanding what that data means for you is even better. Until Jawbone, FitBit, and the likes master AI, there are some things you can do to interpret the facts and figures yourself. Bonus: Looking at your data in a new way will also help you stay excited about your activity monitor (and make it past the six-month drop-off cliff!).
Build From Your Baseline
“As an athlete, you’re constantly thinking about your performance, but if you don’t have a baseline, you might know that you feel good or bad on your run or in yoga that day, but you won't necessarily know why or what that correlates to,” says Lindsey Matese, spokesperson for the Microsoft Band. Since fitness trackers aren’t perfect—they could be off by a few steps or calories day to day—obsessing over tiny details can set you up for disappointment, but looking at trends over time and comparing them to where you were when you first started can be a useful way to use your data. Aim for positive improvements—like a higher step average in July than you had in June—and see how that correlates to other areas in your life. “I found that on my longest workout days, I actually get worse sleep,” says Matese. “So I’ve now moved my life around to not have as long days when I know I’m going to have back to back workouts on the weekend.” Look for patterns like this in your own life by viewing your sleep in comparison to your activity.
Search for Inconsistencies
Are you getting in 12,000 steps a day on the weekend and only 4,000 on weekdays? Or consistently not sleeping enough at the beginning of the week? Maybe your activity level flourishes in the afternoon but you're sluggish in the a.m. Fitness trackers like the Basis Peak help you find these inconsistencies, adjust your goals, and work towards being more consistent, explains Basis creator and general manager Jef Holove. But even if your tracker doesn't have this functionality, you can look for big shifts in your data on your own. Once you've identified where your numbers are off, brainstorm solutions for improvement, like aiming to go for a walk on Saturdays to make up for the time you spend walking to work during the week.
Play Games With Your Stats
Looking at numbers without having any context for them can make them difficult to interpret and lead to boredom. To make your data easier to understand, try using a service that aggregates your data and turns it into a game, like Matchup, a brand new app that allows users from different fitness tracker platforms to compete against each other (or themselves) through challenges and journeys. View your steps in a more concrete way, like by following the route of the Chicago Marathon on a map, or trekking the distance of the Great Wall of China. Race against your friends, a community of other users, or an earlier version of yourself. Providing context for your activity drives more behavioral changes because you’re more motivated when you understand your data, explains Matchup co-founder Anthony Knierim. It also brings out your competitive side, he notes, which can help you push further than you thought possible.
Share Data With Your Doctor
Fitness trackers have become a method of self-care, but letting your doctor in on movement and sleep patterns can actually help them have a better understanding of your overall health, and therefore care for you better, says new research from Stanford University School of Medicine. “I recommend that patients bring in any data they have gathered from their fitness trackers to their primary care appointments,” says Alistair Aaronson, M.D., first author on the study. “Even if your physician does not yet know how to fully integrate fitness tracker data into the development of a personalized treatment plan or health maintenance regimen, you will be setting a positive precedent whereby patients take more charge of their own medical care,” he says. And by offering up your data, you’re giving your doctor a more complete picture of your health, rather than that once a year weigh-in and trying to recall how many minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise you’re logging each week. (More personal care is the wave of the future. DNA-Based Personalized Medicine May Change Healthcare Forever.)