Fitness trackers have come along way. Growing up, I remember the popularity of those little clip-on boxes that told people exactly how many steps they took per day. Today, it seems everyone owns a fitness tracker watch and steps are only a small part of their tracking capabilities. Newer options most often come in the forms of watches, rings, and bracelets and measure steps, calories burned, minutes active, heart rate, and sleep quality. All of this data is great to have, but if you don’t know how to use the data to improve fitness you’re essentially just wearing an overpriced piece of unfashionable jewelry.

Step Count

The step count is an awesome feature that can be utilized to increase your activity. Most of us are far less active during the day than we think, even if we workout daily. Increasing your daily step count not only raises your total daily energy expenditure, but is a low stress way to burn more calories and improve your health. Research has shown that even a modest 6500-8500 step count per day may help prevent cardiovascular disease [1], the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. I generally recommend all of my general population clients hit a target of 10,000 steps per day to help us create a modest caloric deficit in a way that isn’t stressful on the central nervous system and offers low joint impact.

Calories Burned

This is arguably the least useful function of fitness trackers. It’s been shown that even the best fitness trackers may over estimate calories burned in some instances by up to 50%. If you’re using the “calories burned” feature of your fitness tracker to estimate the calories you can eat to avoid weight gain, you’re likely making a big mistake. This feature is best use as a way to monitor consistency. While the numbers recorded may be inaccurate, they will still begin to form a pattern in your daily activity that can be utilized to increase activity such as steps, when needed.

Heart Rate

If you know what you’re doing, you can use the heart rate function of your tracker to monitor both workout intensity, and recovery. Your maximum heart rate about 220 minus your age. For moderate intensity, exercising at around 50-70% of this number is recommended, while for intense exercise you should hit around 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.

If you view your tracker first thing in the morning, you should be able to get a read on your resting heart rate. A normal RHR is said to be between 60-100 beats per minute, although some well conditioned athletes may clock in around 40 or below. After consistently seeing the same number, noticing a sudden change in your RHR may indicate poor recovery and will allow you to make the necessary adjustments to improve recovery.


Sleep tracking is by far my favorite function of most fitness trackers. Too often people are sleeping 8-9 hours per night only to wake up still feeling tired. With the sleep tracking function of most fitness trackers you can not only track how long you’re asleep, but how much of that time was spent tossing and turning versus time spent getting restful sleep. As mentioned in a previous article, sleep is extremely importance for overall health and performance and a tracker can be worth its weight in gold if it does nothing but improve your sleep quality.

Are they worth it?

If you use a fitness tracker not just for collecting data but for applying the information to change, it can be a handy tool in improving your health and performance. While functions such as the “calories burned” may be grossly inaccurate, functions such as the step counter, heart rate monitor, and sleep tracker can be high beneficial when used consistently. If you’re ready to put in the work to improve your fitness adding a fitness tracker to your toolbox may make your job a little bit easier.