If you’ve got a new fitness tracker for Christmas, then you’re probably keen to get out and start using it. Or maybe you’re looking to buy one to help you get your new fitness regime off to the best start. Activity trackers—also known as a smartwatch or a wearable—can be excellent motivators, but how do you use them to actually get fit?

Unfortunately, a fitness tracker can’t get fit for us. We actually have to put work in too. And they’re more useful if you have a specific goal in mind. We’re going to take a look at the different types of fitness activity trackers, and how to use them to reach your goals so your smartwatch doesn’t just become a fancy pedometer.

What is an Activity Tracker?

An activity tracker is so much more than a stopwatch, or a device to count your steps. It can also monitor a range of fitness-related metrics, like keeping track of calories, monitoring your sleep and checking your vital signs.

It’s effectively a wearable mini computer, which can usually be synced to your smartphone or laptop for long term data tracking. When used correctly, an activity tracker can be a super effective tool for helping you achieve your short and long term fitness goals as they’re a fantastic way to track progress.

How do Activity Trackers work?

Activity trackers come with a variety of different functions, depending on how much you want to spend, and what model you choose to go for. You can get your hands on a basic one for as little as around £15, but you can spend upwards of £500 for something that’s all singing, all dancing.

Here’s a rundown of what fitness activity trackers can do, as well as the technology behind them.

  • Count your steps: Pretty much all trackers will contain an accelerometer, which measures how fast something is changing its speed or direction. This tool will allow you to count the number of steps you take, as well as measure your movements.
  • Check your heart rate: Most activity trackers contain a heart rate monitor to measure your pulse during exercise or at rest. Some can also cleverly detect your skin temperature and level of perspiration to figure out just how hard you’re working.
  • Keep track of calories: Some trackers use your heart rate data to estimate how many calories you've burned. You can also use apps to record how many calories you consume. This is an essential tool if your overall goal is to lose weight.
  • Monitoring water intake: Yes - there are even some smartwatches and fitness trackers that monitor how much water we’re drinking. Drinking plenty of water is essential for our health, but very few of us actually drink enough of it. Some wearables use near-infrared light to measure your hydration levels and will tell you when those levels get too low. And others work with apps (such as WaterMinder) to help you log your water intake. This app can work in conjunction with other apps to give an overall picture of your health.
  • Calculate your altitude: Great for hiking and climbing, some good fitness activity trackers also use a barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure to calculate your altitude. It can also tell you how many flights of stairs you’ve climbed. Some also have a gyroscope which detects whether you’re sitting, standing or lying down, and a built-in GPS unit can track your location, which is useful for recording your route on a run or bike ride.
  • Monitor your sleep: Many trackers claim to track how well you’re sleeping. They rely on actigraphy to determine the quality of sleep by detecting motion while you’re lying down. Though in reality, it’s very difficult for a tracker to know when you’re in a deep sleep, a light sleep or awake, so they can sometimes be a little inaccurate.
  • Sync with other devices: Activity trackers often work with a smartphone app, which can track your activity over time so you can monitor your progress. This can also help you form healthier habits in the long term.
  • Send/receive messages: Your activity tracker or smartwatch can also pair up with your phone to let you know that you have an incoming call, messages, emails or social media notifications. They can also act as a personal coach by sending you a “move alert” if you’ve been sitting for too long, or a message of praise when you reach one of your goals. You can also use your tracker to share your activity with friends online, which promotes healthy competition.

It’s important to have your fitness goals in mind before you go and buy your activity tracker, as this will determine which features you need and how much you need to spend.

What are the benefits of using an Activity tracker?

It’s estimated that around 12% of the UK population own a wearable device, that’s around 6 million people.

So why are they so popular? One of the main benefits is that they motivate us to be more active. For many, exercise is more rewarding when they can see how well they’re doing. It’s easier to get excited about hitting a specific goal like doing 10,000 steps a day, than a vague goal of being healthier.

Ready to set goals? Learn more about setting SMART fitness goals with Decathlon.

Here are some of the other benefits of using an activity tracker:

  • Measure your progress: Once you’ve set your goals, an activity tracker can let you see if you’re on track to hit them. If you’re under your target, you can take steps to improve. And you can use your data to see how the numbers change over time. This can help you see what works and what doesn’t work for you.
  • Understand your overall health: Using a tracker can help you see if you’re getting enough sleep or if you’re doing the required number of steps. You can also use it to measure your resting heart rate to see how fit you are, or if you’re stressed.
  • More effective training: Using all the different features will give you an accurate ‘big picture’ view of your training routine. Easy-to-read graphs will allow you to quickly identify any problem areas, and daily monitoring of your heart rate will ensure you’re in good health. It’ll give you an idea of how many calories you’re burning every day (especially during exercise) and you can also find out your target heart rate zone so you know where you need to be in order to maintain intensity.

If you’re someone who likes to do lots of different types of sport and exercise, the clever ‘activity sensors’ on the more expensive models will detect if you’re running, cycling, swimming or working out at the gym, and it can automatically log your activity within an app that your device chooses. Just make sure you choose a waterproof activity tracker if you are planning on using it in the pool. It means that activity tracker data can help you to choose a training schedule based on your different types of activities.

All that being said, there are a few drawbacks with activity trackers. Including:

  • Cost: You can get a basic one pretty cheaply, but you need to spend more to get more features. Very basic ones often don’t have their own display screen, so you have to use your smartphone to see your results. GPS and calculating your altitude also cost extra.
  • Inaccurate results: They can sometimes underestimate your distance if you’re travelling fast, and they overestimate when you’re moving slowly. And when it comes to monitoring your sleep, your tracker may believe you’re getting a good night’s sleep when in fact you may be lying still, but wide awake.
  • Unhealthy obsession: Activity trackers can lead you to focus too much on numbers and results, and not enough on how exercise makes you feel. It’s unwise to depend on a device to tell you if you’re healthy or not, you need to listen to your body too.
  • Out of fashion: Around 1 in 3 tracker users stop wearing their device within 6 months of buying it, so you need to consider this before you go and buy one. Think about your goals. Will an activity tracker help you achieve them? If not, it could be money down the drain.

Ensure you have clear goals in mind before you buy an activity tracker. Once you know what you want to achieve, you can look for a tracker with the features you need to help you succeed. Be careful about buying one just because it’s something your friends have, or because it looks good. And an activity tracker should be used as a guide only, otherwise you could end up with an inaccurate view of your overall fitness.

Which Activity Tracker is right for me?

To hit your fitness goals, you need an activity tracker which makes the process easier, not more complicated.

Some people just want to see the results of their hard work, such as being able to run faster or getting that six-pack. Others are motivated by numbers and love hitting their targets.

If you’re someone who’s data-driven and likes numbers and graphs, then an activity tracker can help you achieve your goals. But you need to know what your goals are before you buy your tracker, as not all are created equal. Different trackers have different functions, and they usually fall into 2 main types: Your basic, “everyday tracker” which shows steps taken, calories burned, and periods of activity and sleep. And more expensive “training trackers” which do all this and more, and are suited to athletes and those who take their training very seriously.

They can track your heart rate and breathing, your speed, and even your altitude.

Here’s a list of the best fitness trackers (available from Decathlon):

This affordable watch with HR monitor is perfect for runner’s who want to manage their workouts. Manage your training sessions using the target zone settings, and it shows you, in real time, whether you are within the target zone you have set up. The chest strap measures your heart rate, and it’s water-resistant to 50m so you can wear it in the pool or in the shower.

This round-the-clock fitness partner is great value for the amount of features you get. It’s smart and easy to use, with a full-colour touch-screen. And it has 24/7 heart rate and sleep tracking, as well as activity tracking and health management. It’s also water-resistant to 50m and includes a swimming tracking mode to monitor length, time, swim strokes, SWOLF (a measure of swimming efficiency), and more.

The Fitbit CHARGE 4 is a fitness tracker wristband with built-in GPS, 24/7 heart rate tracking, sleep tracking and lots more. With an intuitive touchscreen to check your stats. And it’s water-resistant to 50m so you can automatically track swim workouts. You can also load your credit and debit cards to your Wallet in the Fitbit app, then use it to tap and pay for purchases on the go.

Decide what you want from your tracker before you go and buy one, as one of the more affordable options may have everything you need.

How can I get the most out of my Activity Tracker?

To really get the most out of your activity tracker, it's important to know how best to use it. After all, it can do much more than count steps. Here are a few pointers to help you use your tracked data in order to reach your fitness goals:

  • Actually wear it: This may seem like an obvious one, but so many wearables just end up thrown in the drawer, never to see daylight again! If you buy one on a whim because it’s on sale, without having a fitness goal in mind, then you’ll eventually lose interest in wearing it. Commit to wearing your tracker every day, and choose a style that suits your personal and professional lifestyle.
  • Set specific goals: Setting goals which are too vague, or unrealistic are going to be difficult to achieve, meaning you’ll quickly lose motivation. It’s fine to have a big-picture objective in mind, but you need to determine specific smaller goals—which you can measure—to help you get there. This will allow you to accurately track progress, and will give you things to celebrate along the way. It’s fine to start small. Most activity trackers allow you to set your number of daily steps, or the flights of stairs you want to climb. Change the metrics to suit you, and stick to them.
  • Decide what works best for you: There’s no “one-method-fits-all” approach when it comes to using fitness tracking data to reach your goals. You should use these results as a starting point, and work out a fitness plan that will allow you to hit your targets, and one that fits in with your personality and lifestyle. For example, if you know you’re not a morning person, then there’s no point in saying you’ll go for a 5 mile run at 6am every morning as you’re probably not going to do it. If you have a busy weekly schedule, start by concentrating on daily steps during the week, and you can introduce other forms of exercise at the weekend.
  • Challenge yourself: This applies to goal setting, but you also need to push yourself while exercising too. Use the heart rate monitor function to see how hard you’re working. The more effort you put in, the higher your heart rate will be, and the more calories you’ll burn. You can also make clever choices when it comes to exercise. For example, HIIT is done at roughly 80% of your maximum heart rate, which means you’ll burn more calories in less time compared to some other forms of exercise.
  • Make use of apps: Another way to make the most of your activity tracker is to use it with fitness apps, which allow you to easily track your daily, weekly and monthly progress. Some apps even reward you for reaching your goals to help you stay motivated - just like having a little personal trainer in your pocket! Take your data and use it as a baseline for what you want to achieve the following week/month. You can also use the app to share your data with your friends, so you can encourage and motivate each other.
  • Don’t give up: It’s impossible to see results overnight. You need to be patient and stick to your fitness plan to achieve your goals. Progress may be slow, but it’s important to keep at it, and don’t be discouraged. Take pleasure in the small things, like losing that pound this week (even if it’s not the 2 pounds you wanted to lose). Afterall, it’s still progress!

If you wear your tracker every day (including at night), fully focus on the goals you’ve set yourself, and be patient, you’ll be well on the way to seeing results in no time.

How can I use my Activity Tracker to reach my goals?

Fitness trackers are all about meeting goals.

But you need to think SMART when setting your fitness goals so you can focus on what you really want to achieve. Your goals need to be specific (with a number and a date attached to them), and something which is neither too easy, nor too unattainable. Your tracker can help you stay motivated, by allowing you to see your progress and helping you to keep on track.

When you're using a fitness tracker, you have to take personal responsibility for the goals you're setting as you’re not relying on others to help you get to where you want to be. Start by deciding what your main goal is, eg. to lose weight. And to determine how successful you’ve been in losing weight, you need to set yourself a more specific weight loss goal.

For instance, “I want to lose a stone in weight (14lbs) in the next 4 months, in time for my holiday”.

From there, you can break this down into smaller, actionable goals to help you succeed.

For example, to help you lose the weight you can decide that you’re going to consume 1700 calories a day for the next 3 weeks, walk 15,000 steps a day for the next month, or do 20 minutes of interval training (3 times per week for the next 6 weeks). Break this down into a weekly target so you know how much weight you should be losing each week, and use your fitness activity tracker to follow your progress.

An activity tracker is a valuable fitness tool which helps monitor your progress while you’re working out, and even when you’re at rest (or sleeping). It can help you develop healthy habits as it acts as a constant reminder to move more, keeping you motivated to complete your daily workout routines so you can achieve your health and fitness goals.