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Take a look around you, wherever you are. How many people are wearing fitness trackers on their wrists? Maybe you have one, too. Apple Watches, Fitbits, Jawbones, Garmins… All of these “wearables” are advertised as making us more fit and active.

But here’s the reality: they’re all useless without this one thing.

Vanity Metrics

By themselves, fitness trackers offer absolutely nothing but vanity metrics. How many steps we take, how many hours of sleep we get, what our heart rate is at any moment, whether we reached an arbitrary “goal” today.

It would be nice if strapping on a smartwatch automatically increased our activity levels.

But they don’t.

All they do is track what’s happening. By themselves, fitness trackers are just fancy, expensive extensions of our phones.

So what’s that one thing that makes it work?

Discipline and the Willingness to Change

Most people get fitness trackers because it’s cool or because they want to see how active—or inactive—they really are. For shining a light on your state of fitness, they do a pretty good job.

I know my resting heart rate, how badly I slept last week, my average number of steps, what days I exercised, and how many calories it thinks I’ve burned today.

None of those vanity metrics do anything for me unless I’m willing to do something different about them.

What gets measured gets managed.

Peter Drucker, the original Management Consultant

Fitness trackers are the measurement half of the equation.

The management half comes from you—not the wearable on your wrist. Buying an Apple Watch or a Fitbit won’t magically turn you into an active, physically fit person.

But it can tell you how badly you need to improve.

You need the discipline to change your habits in order to “make it work.”

Making Exercise a Cornerstone Habit

Cornerstone habits are habits that set you up for success in almost every other part of your life. The big three are:

  • Getting enough sleep (8 hours is the “standard”)
  • Eating a healthy diet (that works with your body—I recommend keto/low-carb)
  • Exercising (at least 3x per week)

It’s like that triangle meme from school:

The person who could balance all three was a Jedi or knew some sort of black magic.

My balance usually left out “social life.”

I believe that exercise is the kind of cornerstone habit that makes sleep and diet much, much easier. Fitness trackers are a good way to track that and identify where you’re falling short.

Building habits takes time, effort, and discipline. Becoming the kind of person who regularly exercises without devoting willpower may take a while.

And it all starts with your mindset, not with the fitness trackers you wear.

Making Fitness Trackers Useful Instead of Useless

I have a Fitbit, so that’s the tracker interface I’m used to. Here’s how I make sure my Fitbit is useful instead of useless.

  1. Set goals in the app for steps, sleep, and how many days to exercise each week.
  2. Look at these goals daily. Did I hit them? If not, why?
  3. Use the answer to #2 to alter my approach for the next day or week.
  4. Periodically adjust the goals to increase my level of effort.

In broad terms, this is how you should be using fitness trackers. They’re tools to assist you in reaching your fitness goals, not designed to do the work for you.

How it Works for Sleep Goals

I’ve never figured out if the “8 hours” standard means you’re actually asleep for 8 hours or if that includes all the short moments of wakefulness during the night. In any case, my average sleep is just below 7 hours. My Fitbit goal is actually 7 hours, but if I wake up feeling refreshed I know I got at least an hour of deep sleep (measured by the Fitbit).

From head hitting the pillow to alarm going off is between 8 and 9 hours. I go to bed between 7:30 PM and 8:00 PM and wake up at 4:00 AM. So I’m “in bed” for 8 hours, but my average nighttime wakefulness is 1 hour.

How do I fix that?

The science of sleep hygiene says to turn off devices an hour before bed, make sure the room is cool and dark, and avoid stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, stress) in the hours beforehand. But the Fitbit doesn’t tell me all that. It just tells me how badly I slept.

I had to do my own research on fixing my sleep. I can’t rely on the fitness tracker to do it for me.

10,000 Steps is Arbitrary

If you’re new to fitness trackers, wear it for a week without changing anything about your routine and habits. That’s your baseline.

My baseline before all of this was pretty pathetic. I’ll walk less than 3,000 steps if I can get away with it, but then I feel like trash. My goal now is 7,250. On good running days, I can hit that before I even leave for work in the morning.

Believe it or not, the push to reach 10,000 steps is completely arbitrary. There’s nothing special about 10,000 steps. It’s just a nice round number the Japanese used decades ago to promote a pedometer, and it just kinda stuck. There’s no science that says 10,000 steps is the ideal number.

When it comes to longevity (for women in particular), the benefits of walking max out at 7,500 steps.

Fitness trackers don't do anything for you by themselves. Without this one thing, they're actually pretty useless. Find out what you need to make it work.

Do You Wear a Fitness Tracker?

If you do, do you know your baseline? Are you setting goals and trying to hit them every week? Does the tracker actually make a difference with your activity level, or is it just showing you those vanity metrics?

I’m interested in how fitness trackers fit into your life. Share in the comments!

About the author 


Life & mindset coach, writer, host of podcast This is Type 1: Real Life with Type 1 Diabetes, and full-time analyst in the power industry. I'm passionate about showing people that how we think determines our realities.

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