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How much activity do you actually get? Why activity tracking is worth it, and perhaps needed more than ever

by Adam Brown

twitter summary: Why I’ve found activity tracking valuable, some of the drawbacks, and conversations with others who watch their step count.

How much activity do you get each week? Do you meet the minimum CDC recommendations?

  1. For adults, 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week (e.g., brisk walking for a total of 150 minutes per week) – note children are advised to get more, along the lines of 60 minutes seven days a week; AND

  2. Muscle strengthening activities on two or more days per week.

The latest statistics suggest:

To make matters worse, the CDC data is all self-reported, and studies show most people overestimate how active they really are. 

This points to an unfortunate double whammy: (1) many of us are not as active as we should be; and (2) we often think we are more active than we actually are. The contributing factors are numerous – city design, workplace culture, cars, screen time, a psychological bias to over-report good behavior, to name a few – but to me, there is one factor worth singling out:

Like calories in food and sugar in our blood, there’s a certain invisible quality to activity – in other words, it’s hard to know how active we actually are unless we measure it.

This article discusses my positive experience logging my own activity, primarily by wearing a Fitbit device that reports the number of “steps” I’ve taken in a day (among other things). See below for my view of the pros and cons of wearing an activity tracker, as well as a summary of conversations with others that track their activity. You can sign up here for our diaTribe giveaway to win your own Jawbone or Fitbit activity tracker.

The Pros of Activity Tracking

1. Without question, it changes my behavior and makes me more active. The number of steps on my Fitbit is an indisputable measurement of just how active I am – and as a result, I can quickly change my behavior accordingly when I’m falling short.

  • For example, when traveling or visiting the suburbs. I typically have no problem getting more than 10,000 steps a day in San Francisco (walking to work is 2,000 steps alone; we’re lucky to have a treadmill desk; and cycling is amazing in the Bay Area), but hitting that goal in other environments can be very challenging. In Phoenix, I must force myself to go for neighborhood walks throughout the day, because so little activity is required to function in a city that revolves around cars (and where the temperature exceeds 110 degrees during the summer). While traveling, I often pace up and down airplane aisles, through airports, and take the stairs up to my hotel room (when they are accessible!).

  • According to Fitbit’s Amy McDonough, users experience a 43% increase in activity just by putting a Fitbit on. As she noted at the Consumer Electronics Show conference in January, “It’s about making it visible.” I couldn’t agree more. After handing out numerous activity trackers to friends and co-workers over the past year, it’s amazing what often happens. They open the box and seem to immediately change their behavior – they spend more time on the treadmill desk, they go for more walking breaks, and they focus on hitting their step goal for the day.  

2. A single actionable goal. I shoot for 10,000 steps every day – it’s one number, and I either hit it or I don’t. By contrast, I find that most exercise targets are confusingly worded (e.g., what constitutes “moderate” or “vigorous” activity?) and rely too much on manually tracking time (e.g., 150 minutes per week). When it’s 8 pm and I see that I’m at 8,500 steps, more often than not, I’ll go for a quick walk or pace around the house to get over 10,000 steps. Does that make me weird? Maybe. But for me, having a clear line in the sand makes all the difference in the world.

3. Activity trackers give immediate feedback – I know in the moment exactly how I’m doing. Like data from CGM, it can be a gamechanger to see the real-time consequences of my behavior. By contrast, I find lots of health data is looked at too far after the fact, when it’s hard to remember and difficult to connect specific behaviors to specific outcomes. For instance, in diabetes, we often rely on an A1c measurement that reflects the last three months of diabetes management; then, we take another measurement three months later. It’s not frequent enough, and by association, not actionable enough. The ability to see continuous, real-time data is a huge benefit of activity trackers.

4. The feedback feels non-judgmental, and often, very motivating. While blood sugar numbers can often feel like a judgment – “265 mg/dl? What did you eat?!” – activity data feels very objective. “Okay – I’ve walked 2,500 steps today.” Instead of feeling guilty or bad about myself, usually I just feel motivated to be more active. Activity trackers also do a great job of giving encouragement with badges and achievements for reaching certain milestones (e.g., one million steps walked), as well as progress reports. Overall, the whole experience is much more positive, much more progress-oriented, and thus much more engaging.

5. Friendly encouragement from friends. I’m a huge fan of the social aspects of activity tracking – whereby you can “follow” your friends, give them encouragement, and challenge each other. This might sound like it could be cutthroat or competitive, but I’ve found it to be the exact opposite. Even the language used (e.g., “Cheer” [Fitbit], “Kudos” [Strava]) speaks to the positive atmosphere that these apps seek to foster. According to Fitbit’s McDonough, for each extra friend someone has on the Fitbit system, his or her activity increases by 750 steps per day. Based on my conversations with friends, however, the social features are not for everyone – some don’t want followers! Fortunately, you can toggle these on or off as you desire.

6. Passive data collection and seamless sync to my phone. Manually tracking and entering things is the bane of my existence – I refuse to do it. Fortunately, most activity trackers are designed with this in mind. I simply wear the device and charge it periodically; it tracks everything and sends the data to my phone in the background. I get notifications throughout the day to remind me how I’m doing. It’s very plug-and-play and very easy – exactly how data downloading should be.

The Cons of Activity Tracking

1. Not every personality responds to activity tracking. I’ve seen some people become obsessed with their step count, but I’ve also seen many lose interest over time, or never get into it in the first place. If you like setting and achieving goals, activity tracking may be a good fit – see this Strengthsfinder personality type for what I mean. If you feel like you’re already active enough, or don’t want to think about more health-related things, or find data like this slightly overwhelming, it may not be for you.

2. Activity tracker devices cost money. Usually, they’re around $100 (depending on the model), but they can run anywhere from $15 to over $200 (for example, at $199.99, the upcoming Basic Peak is on the more expensive side).

  • If cost is a concern, use an app like Moves or Strava, or buy an inexpensive pedometer like this one from Omron. You can always upgrade to a more expensive and full-featured device later on. Additionally, many employers offer wellness programs that give out activity trackers for free; you may even get discounts on your insurance premiums by using it.

3. You can lose a device, run it through the washing machine, break it, etc. Many activity trackers are now wristbands, which make them much harder to lose. Some are waterproof, though most won’t survive a run through the wash.

4. It’s another thing to wear/carry/think about. I generally forget I’m wearing mine, but people with diabetes carry a lot of stuff. You may not want to deal with something else.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, I’ve found activity tracking to be a very positive addition to my arsenal of health gadgets. It motivates me to be more active in a world where physical activity has been largely engineered out of our lives. I love striving toward a single goal and feeling motivated to change my behavior for the better. I encourage anyone out there to try tracking their activity – whether it’s through an app, an inexpensive pedometer, or a Fitbit/Jawbone device.

Do you track your activity? Are you considering it? Please email me at adam.brown(at)diaTribe.org and share your thoughts!

Appendix: Conversations with Other Activity Tracker Owners

Q: What made you want to use a fitness tracker (device or app)? 

  • I wanted to know (data) how many steps I was taking per day. It was eye opening to see how sedentary my work lifestyle was.

  • Accountability of what has actually happened. The reason is based on my CGM experience that you don't know where you are at until you 'see' it. And you don't know how you are progressing until you have a status/record over time.

  • I had friends who were using them who spoke highly of them. At the time, I had been looking for more ways to get active as well, so it felt like a good investment.

  • I had fallen off my exercise routine after college and needed something to keep me accountable for exercise. Also, I like being able to keep track of my progress over weeks/months, and it’s much easier to do that on a tracker than do it by hand/try to keep it in my head.

Has using a fitness tracker changed your behavior? 

  • Totally! I try to shoot for 10,000 steps per day. I don't always do it, but my average has increased significantly.

  • Yes - I find myself being more aware of the days I don't take that many steps. It makes you want to go out of your way to walk somewhere instead of taking a cab, bus, or car.

  • I didn't think that I would be motivated by a fitness tracker, although now that I've lost my current one, I realize how important it is to have a small daily reminder to get up and move more often. Using a fitness tracker has definitely made me more conscious about how often I walk everywhere. I haven't taken the bus in weeks!

  • The device itself is a 'gentle' reminder that physical activity might be beneficial. Again not to trigger the activity, but rather to track what I am doing anyway.

  • On the whole, I do find it very motivating. I find that when I am in the mood to exercise and be motivated by something, then the tracker is great – very helpful for reaching my goals each day (sleep, food, exercise). However, if I am feeling particularly tired or lethargic, then I will sometimes ignore it.

  • It may have increased my activity, but only by a little bit. ​It got me into taking a quick (15-20 min) walk after lunch and dinner.

What is the biggest benefit of a fitness tracker? 

  • The fireworks that go off in my brain when I achieve my goal for the day.

  • Seeing the cold hard facts that I am in a sitting position for most of my day. I kind of knew that since I have a desk job, but seeing the 13 hours on the screen does get you thinking.

  • It really shows that every step counts. I like being able to see my progress throughout the day and seeing how many steps it takes to do routine things, like walking to work, going to get groceries, etc.

  • Data to keep you motivated to stay active.

  • Knowing that it is going to track my steps no matter what! I wear my tracker all the time, and I'll walk more places to get my steps.

What is the biggest drawback of a fitness tracker? 

  • One more thing to carry on you.

  • Fitness trackers are too expensive for many people to use, and furthermore, are associated with people viewed as "fitness gurus" or who are really intense about their fitness. In reality, everyone needs a daily reminder to move no matter how into "being fit" they are, since daily life for most people is so sedentary.

  • When I have a pretty sedentary day, I feel pretty bad looking at my steps the next morning and feel like all my hard work the days before have been negated.

  • Currently, many of the trackers that give you a more holistic set of data are on the higher end of the price range, and also usually require a smartphone to sync with. They also seem to target people who are proactive about using the data to change their behavior vs. those who are more resistant to behavioral changes.

  • It didn't challenge me enough to keep using it. Maybe it could have been more engaging? Not sure. ​But I still do the walks.

  • The biggest drawback with my device (Polar Flow) is battery life; I would want it to last about 4-5 days without thinking about it.

Has using a fitness tracker improved your diabetes?

  • It did; it got me walking after dinner and after lunch, which helped with blood sugar. ​

  • It's hard to say. It certainly has gotten me to be more active; but the past few months, I haven't had the best control due to food intake and tons of stress.

  • I don't get my complete picture – meaning the fitness data in relation to my blood glucose levels or insulin inputs – and I am not sophisticated enough to generate a merged view.

Does the social aspect of fitness tracking intimidate you? 

  • No, I had fun with that! I enjoyed that part. ​

  • It’s a really strong motivational factor in terms of getting people involved and “in the game,” but if taken too seriously, could be more discouraging and intimidating than encouraging. My friends tend to be pretty competitive and serious about their activity, so sometimes I find myself feeling ashamed if I don't run or bike at a certain pace. I often choose to keep certain data private so that I have the information purely for my own benefit. I try to always perceive successes as motivation to improve and do my best.

  • A bit, because I am not the most fit person.

  • I don't use the social features as motivation.

  • I don't use the social aspect and hate seeing the “points” of people I know - exercising is a personal lifestyle choice, and I don't like the idea of subconsciously judging or feeling competitive with other people just because of a silly fitness tracker app. 

  • I get wildly competitive, and I would rather try to maintain personal goals without feeling frustrated that I did not have as good a workout as someone else; to some extent, it takes the fun out of exercising and self-improvement.


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