Activity trackers and apps might help you move more, but a new study finds negative consequences of relying on them too heavily

By Caitlin Carlson
January 16, 2015
Corbis Images

These days, it's not a question of whether or not you count your steps or track your activity, but how you do it (do you use one of these 8 Fitness Bands We Love?) And that's a great thing, since activity trackers and apps keep you accountable and help you move more throughout the day, keeping you fit and helping to ward off illness like heart disease and cancer (In fact, Moving Is Key to a Longer Life, Says a New Study.)

But, before you strap on your tracker or fire up your app and let technology do its magic, hear this: A new study by Northwestern University researchers found that you should take a more active role when it comes to tracking your activity. While it may seem like a great thing that you don't have to think so hard about how active you are (because technology does it for you), you may be unwittingly doing yourself a disservice. "The process of thinking about when you were active during the day and the opportunities you missed for being active is an important part of behavior change. The sensors [in tracking apps] enable you to skip that important step," says lead study author David E. Conroy, Ph.D.

In other words, it's helpful to self-report your activity if you're trying to be more active, just as it is to self-report your nutrition if you're trying to lose weight. (Are You Counting Calories Wrong?) That's not to say you can't gain a lot from reviewing your movement or activity using an app or tracker (after all, you're not going to self-report every step you take!). But, in addition to reviewing all that data, it could also be helpful to take note of your activity separately, says Conroy.

For example, slate your exercise schedule in your calendar (digital or paper!) or keep a fitness diary. "This is a great idea because it engages you actively in monitoring your own behavior," says Conroy. Conroy's research also supports actively self-monitoring your nutrition intake (if you're looking to drop weight or eat healthier) with an app like MyFitnessPal, too. Just be sure that, whether you're monitoring diet or exercise, you're consistent and stick to it. "The key to success is to adhere to that regimen of self-monitoring for a long enough period of time to see progressive changes in behavior and health outcomes," says Conroy. To start, try these 5 Steps to Make a Healthy Habit.