The beginning of the new year frequently encompasses heightened enthusiasm for improving our health and well-being. Personal goals are often set to eat better, lose weight, and exercise more consistently. Well-intentioned steps are taken, and money is expended to join fitness centers and diet programs and purchase home exercise equipment, as well as other tools/apparel that assist with the wellness pursuit. Unfortunately, for many people, the enthusiasm and motivation to continue these lifestyle-related changes soon wane, and within a few months, old habits prevail.
Far too many people still think of physical activity in the “No Pain: No Gain” got to work hard mode and, as a result, begin at too high a level in an attempt to reach unrealistic goals. For others, the thought of the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity is a daunting expectation and, when not immediately achieved, leads to frustration and even termination of their activity program.
Although setting realistic physical activity goals is important, receiving regular feedback regarding current activity status and overall progress has been shown to enhance motivation and long-term success. Fitness trackers, such as step pedometers and accelerometers, are wearable devices that provide instantaneous data regarding the number of steps taken, distance traveled, calories burned, elevation gained, and more. Information such as this helps people stay on track and provides a sense of accomplishment, especially when tied to realistic goals.
Pedometers primarily count steps by detecting up and down (vertical) movement of the body as a person walks. Inside these units is a spring-suspended arm that moves up and down each time the body is displaced vertically. The downward movement of the lever closes a circuit, and the unit counts a step. To maintain accuracy, it is important that pedometers are worn in a horizontal position.
Accelerometer technology is more sophisticated than a pedometer because it constantly measures both vertical and horizontal acceleration of movement. Some accelerometers also have altimeters that measure elevation changes and provide the user with the corresponding number of stairs climbed for the day.
Although the hardware technology behind pedometers, accelerometers, and other fitness tracking devices may seem somewhat complicated and continues to expand, the psychology behind their success is relatively simple; immediate feedback provides reinforcement, motivation, and a sense of accountability. The average adult takes just more than 5,000 steps per day. Studies have shown that simply using a pedometer or accelerometer enhances a person’s physical activity awareness and increases the daily step count by an average of 2,500 steps.
For many people, a simple low-cost step pedometer ($10 to $50) and associated logbook to track daily steps will provide adequate feedback and motivation to increase daily activity significantly. Although a bit more expensive ($100 to $150), accelerometers provide information beyond step counts and can upload data to a computer network wirelessly for easy tracking, reporting, and motivational rewards. Regardless of the unit chosen, it is recommended that the initial week is used to establish a daily baseline of activity. Once the baseline is established, feedback from the device gradually will help increase daily activity, such as steps, distance, number of stairs climbed, and/or calories burned, depending on the device used. It is important to focus on getting activity throughout the day and not just doing a single 30- to 60-minute session and considering that an “active” day. An important goal is to reduce daily inactivity or sitting time by replacing it with some form of movement.
There are a number of Web sites (e.g., www.fitbit.com; http://nikeplus.nike.com/plus/products/fuelband), some directly associated with a device, that allow users to track their daily information and progress over time. Many of these Web-based programs allow a participant to connect with other users so each person’s data are visible. This adds a bit of accountability, fun, and challenge to the program and can be quite motivating and rewarding. As you venture into the new year, you might consider using one of these devices to enhance your overall physical activity program.