Fitness Data: 5 Ways to Actually Use It

February 12, 2016 • Rehack Team


It’s not every day that we get to witness the birth of an entirely new industry. But that’s exactly what’s happening now that wearable technology is starting to come of age.

Fitbit, Jawbone, Withings, and Apple are all trying to stake their claim in this brave new world of the “quantified self.” Technology is delivering all kinds of new ways for us to collect data about our habits — and, of course, to engage in all of the inevitable self-flagellation when we fail to live up to our goals.

Nevertheless, wearable tech enthusiasts have been struggling to find ways to make fitness data useful. Now that the connections between health, productivity and happiness are so clear to us, let’s explore five ways to do just that.

Set Goals That Actually Make Sense

A goal like “lose weight” is not terribly helpful. To begin with, weight is not the best metric if you want to measure progress. The average person’s weight will fluctuate on a daily and even hourly basis, so stepping on that scale is at best a distraction and at worst a distorter of what really matters.

The very first step to using fitness data is to measure only the things you have direct control over. In this case, step counts are vastly more useful than how much weight you shed in the course of a single day. The steps you take throughout the day are a very direct result of your general activity level. This is what we need to be measuring.

Need more convincing? Most health experts agree that the best way to lose weight is to simply be more active. Given that, make sure what you’re measuring is the thing that will make the most difference.

Engage in Some Friendly Competition

Company wellness programs are all the rage right now, and with good reason. There’s strong evidence that adding a social component to a fitness regimen can help improve everybody’s results.

Pursued in isolation, fitness goals can start to feel like a private burden — or even a private shame. But when you team up with a walking club with friends at work, or challenge your significant other to be active alongside you, the shared experience — the triumphs along with the setbacks — can help raise morale and improve your chances at success.

Don’t Forget About the Dietary Component

Fitness trackers will not deliver instant results. Sure, they’ll help you quantify both your good and your bad habits, but it takes a little more effort to actually change your habits.

Although we saw above that being active throughout the day is a key component to getting and staying fit, tracking our activity levels can sometimes distract us from the other key part of the equation: What we eat.

Make no mistake: the word “diet” is as misused as it is misunderstood. You don’t need to slavishly count calories or shave down your croutons to a more agreeable size. No — the trick is simply to eat just a bit less than you normally would. Losing weight means creating a slight calorie deficiency, which you can accomplish by mastering those pesky mid-morning or mid-afternoon hunger pains. It’s not about starving yourself — it’s about training your body to get by with a little less.

So, yes, tracking your steps is important. But if it’s not accompanied by minor changes to your diet, you’ll be spinning your wheels.

Get Real With Your Fitness Data

Fitness trackers are just not that good at incentivizing us for our efforts. The Apple Watch offers “badges” that you can earn for being active, and your Fitbit might buzz pleasantly when you reach your daily step goal, but these come to feel like minor and unhelpful rewards. How do you create motivations that are more meaningful?

We’ve already gone over the importance of setting realistic goals. Motivation is something entirely different. Motivation provides the Why on the way to the What. Strapping on a fitness tracker is a great first step, but why are you doing it in the first place?

For some of us, our motivation lies in pleasing our significant other. We want to be healthier for them, or just look better naked. We might also find motivation in a planned excursion into the backcountry, for example. A goal is something like: “I want to walk at least two miles every day.” A possible motivation is: “I want to be physically fit for my strip to Yellowstone next year.”

To make the most out of your technology, really spend some time thinking about what it’s all for.

Know When to Reward Yourself Using Fitness Data

Finally, let’s end with what you’ve all been waiting for: The reward part of the bargain. Although setting goals and tracking progress is great, you’re going to lose interest quickly if you’re not giving yourself a brief pat on the back for major milestones.

It can be tempting to use food as a reward system — “I ran five miles today! Time for an ice cream sundae!” — but this is self-defeating for obvious reasons. Consider different ways to incentivize yourself, such as making a deposit in your piggy bank every time you meet your weekly goal. Watch it add up, and then treat yourself to something you’ve coveted for a while, or something you need around the house. Your reward can be as practical as you like, but don’t forget to have some fun with it.

At the end of the day, fitness trackers are certainly a hugely useful tool — we just have to know how to use them to their full potential. And that starts with thinking beyond the numbers.