How to get the most out of your smart watch when it comes to your fitness
If you’re looking to improve your health this year, you may be considering different options to help track your fitness goals.
You’re not alone — about one in five Australians own wearable fitness trackers.
But with different options to track things like step count, heart rate, and even water intake it can feel overwhelming — especially those notifications telling you to move after a big day.
So how can you make these devices work for you?
The potential benefits of a smart watch
Reports show our physical activity declines as we age but that’s where a smart watch can help, says Professor Carol Maher, who researches the positive health impacts of wearable technology.
“The number one benefit of using them is being aware of how much physical activity you’re doing each day,” she says.
In one study, smart watches helped participants (aged 18–65) to increase their daily step count by 1,850 steps per day.
“It’s particularly helpful for people working from home at the moment who might be missing out on ‘incidental’ physical activity, like walking to the coffee shop,” Ms Maher says.
Another study found with frequent use over a long period of time (5–7 months), smart watches became a good tool to help make exercise a habit that sticks.
What can a smart watch measure?
The majority of smart watches can do the basics for you like monitor your heart rate, sleep patterns and steps. They also have more advanced features like GPS tracking for outdoor running, to monitoring the oxygen level in your blood.
It sounds helpful but the reality is, you probably don’t need all of these functions, so exercise physiologist Jonathan Peake says save yourself some money by thinking about why you want a smart watch and how you’re going to use it.
“There are three basic functions that would help most people hit their health or physical activity goals and they are: step counts to measure physical activity, estimate of calorie counts, and measurement of heart rate,” he says.
If you do rigorous exercise like running or weight training a few times a week, then keeping an eye on your heart rate could be more beneficial for you.
“Monitoring your resting heart rate when you wake up can be a useful tool. If it’s higher than normal for a period of a few days, this might indicate the body is stressed, and you need to relax or get more sleep,” Dr Peake explains.
If you do think a heart rate monitor will be useful for you, track your stats over time and if your resting heart rate decreases, that’s a good sign you’re improving your cardiovascular endurance.
But overall, Dr Peake says “start out with something basic and use it for a year or two and see how much you get out of it before making a big investment”.
Using your data as a guide
Before we dive into smart watch data, it’s important to note that these numbers can sometimes be inaccurate, so it’s best to use them as a guide, says Dr Peake .
“People need to be aware that wearing a smart watch on your wrist doesn’t always provide the best indication of whole-body movement,” he says.
Ms Maher adds “the accuracy also varies from model to model and the metrics used.”
“They tend to be good for step count but less accurate when it comes to measuring calories burned.”
An example of this is yoga: you might be working up a sweat because it’s a strenuous activity, but your smart watch may not pick it up because you’re in a stable position and not vigorously moving around, Ms Maher says.
Sleep monitoring is another function that has some gaps.
“We know for sleep duration, like bedtime and wake time it’s reasonably accurate but for other sleep stages like REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep, it’s not good,” Ms Maher says.
Setting health and fitness goals
How do you use your data without becoming obsessed or feeling guilty?
Ms Maher says you could try setting realistic goals and use your smart watch to keep you accountable.
“In our research we found it to be a positive tool when it’s used on a daily basis because you’re aware of how much physical activity you’re getting, and hopefully it motivates you to reach your daily goal,” she says.
At the same time, Ms Maher says make sure your watch is working for you, not the other way around.
“Watches come with customisable goals which are ‘assumed’ goals, so if you find they’re too much, adjust them down.”
“Everyone responds differently to feedback. For one person it can be motivating and others, it can be demotivating, so it’s about finding what works for you and turning off notifications if it gets too much,” she says.
Sometimes constant notifications can be annoying and reports actually found this was a reason some people stopped using their watch.
If that’s you, Dr Peake says, continue to wear your watch but use your data differently.
“Track yourself over time and don’t get too bogged down on the day-to-day data,” Dr Peake says.
“It’s the trends over time, like a weekly or monthly basis, that will provide the most value for people.”
Another tip Dr Peake suggests: don’t compare yourself to other people.
“The benefit doesn’t come from comparing your numbers to some objective goal or family or friends. The real benefit comes from comparing your own data against itself over time,” he says.
It’s always important to remember, regardless of what your watch says, if you’re feeling tired, take that as a cue from your body that it’s time to rest.
“Sleep and knowing when to rest is a really important aspect of our health.”