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Be Well, Be Well Informed

Can Activity Trackers Improve Health?

Posted on Jun 22, 2015 in Prevention and Wellness

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Most of us are always seeking ways to exercise more, lose weight, stress less and improve our health. The latest digital health apps and activity trackers promise an innovative solution. But do they really work, or are they just the latest health fad soon to be abandoned like the exercise equipment gathering dust in the garage?

“The first step in making any change to improve your health is gaining awareness,” Tarini Anand, M.D., a Mills-Peninsula internal medicine physician, says. “A proven strategy is to keep a daily log of the exercise you are doing, or each meal or snack you have eaten. Apps and activity devices are excellent trackers. They can help make you more mindful of what you are doing daily and help you jump-start healthy changes.”

The Right App for You

Apps range from simple digital step counters to those with a dizzying array of features including calorie counters, exercise programs, sleep monitors, social networking and peer support. Some feature integration with other health and fitness devices such as digital scales, heart monitors, activity trackers, other health apps and social networks. Many apps and wearable technology also include reminders to ensure you keep on track, or provide motivational messages or sounds to help get you moving, or let you know when you have achieved certain goals.

Many apps are free. Others offer a free basic version and an annual fee for enhanced features such as nutrient tracking, meal planning and the ability to create challenges for yourself and your friends.

Activity trackers are enhanced pedometers that are usually paired with web-based software or a mobile app. They let you track the number of steps you take, tally the miles you cover, show day-by-day how much physical activity you get, calculate the calories you burn and collect data on your sleep patterns.

These small devices can be clipped onto your waistband or worn as a bracelet. Studies show that the devices clipped to your body are usually more accurate. Although excellent at recording steps, they can’t track other modes of exercise such as cycling, swimming or kayaking. You can usually record activities other than walking on the devices’ digital dashboards to get a picture of how active you are. Activity trackers are more of a financial investment, ranging in price from $50 for basic models to more than $500 for high-performance fitness monitors.

“Choose an app based on the goal you want to reach rather than by the bells and whistles it offers,” Dr. Anand says. “A free app or one that only costs a few dollars may be all you need if, for example, your goal is simply to track and increase your steps to become more active daily. It’s not a big financial investment to try out one or two different apps to find the one that suits you best.”

Dr. Anand tells her patients to check reviews online from reputable sources and also ask their friends.

“If you choose an app or device with social networking features, you can help motivate each other,” Dr. Anand says. “It’s always easier to make lifestyle changes together with a friend or loved one.”

Getting the Most Out of Your App

Mimi Jones, R.N., a cardiac nurse and exercise physiologist, works with patients in the Mills-Peninsula CardioMetabolic Program to help them achieve lasting health, fitness and lifestyle changes. Patients in the program use the Fitbit® digital pedometer to help them become more active.

Jones recommends having a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. For example, a popular goal is to reach 10,000 daily steps, which roughly equals an hour or so per day of active movement. This goal might be right for you if you are simply trying to sit less and move more. For some less active people, 10,000 steps may be too many. And children and teens need closer to 15,000 steps as a minimum daily activity goal.

In addition, as all the apps and activity trackers work slightly differently and vary in accuracy, it’s best to pick one and stick with it. That way you can see your progress and stay motivated.

“The bottom line is that it’s not about picking the perfect device or app but about being truly committed to your goal,” Jones says. “An activity tracker or app can help you set a goal, keep track of how you are doing and possibly help inspire you to reach that goal. Ultimately, though, you are the one who needs to fully commit to making the time to fit in more exercise into your day or stick to good food choices to do the best for your health.”

Anand-Tarini-2013Tarini Anand, M.D., is a Mills-Peninsula internist.

Mimi Jones_Resize-1Mimi Jones, R.N., is a cardiac nurse and exercise physiologist with Mills-Peninsula’s CardioMetabolic Program.