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Do You Need an Activity Tracker? How to Know, How to Choose

You’ve heard all about how important physical activity is for not just weight control, but for many aspects of health, and you’ve been trying to walk more often. So why would you want some sort of monitor to track your physical activity? That’s what I used to think. But now, for me and for many patients with whom I’ve worked, I know why.activity trackers show many Americans are sedentary

Yes, people have made headlines with reports that using a tracker led them to gain weight. However, there’s more to that story.

Although American adults are walking more, less than half of American adults (47%) reach the federal recommendation of at least 150 minutes each week of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking), or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity, or an equivalent combination.  That’s unfortunate, since these guidelines note more than this minimum brings even greater health benefits.

Here’s the clincher: The statistics illustrate exactly why I know I need an activity tracker — only 16.3% of American adults reach the oft-heard recommendation to accumulate at least 10,000 steps a day. In fact, 36.1% of American adults qualify as sedentary, defined as less than 5,000 steps a day.

How can nearly half of Americans get 30 minutes of activity most days, yet accumulate steps so much lower than you might think? If most of your day is spent sitting and at a low activity level, it takes more intentional activity to reach levels of activity associated with health.

Will an Activity Tracker Make a Difference?

People who begin a pedometer-based walking program increase the steps they take by about 2,000 to 4,000 a day, corresponding to an extra one to two miles a day, according to an analysis of nine intervention trials.  Another analysis analyzing intervention trial data from a different perspective links use of pedometers with a 27% increase in physical activity.

The benefits for any one individual depend on how a tracker is used. The intervention trials that show benefit involve people who have signed up to be in a study focused on becoming more active and/or losing weight. Just clipping a tracker on your wrist or your waist does not magically push you out the door.

What I have found about wearing a pedometer is that it provides two important things:

  • It keeps you aware of your overall activity. Health benefits accrue even when physical activity occurs in blocks of 10 or 15 minutes rather than all at once. Unfortunately, it can be harder to keep track of these small blocks.
  • It addresses the problem that those of us with sedentary jobs or lifestyles face: that even 30 minutes a day of physical activity may not be enough to reach levels of physical activity linked with good health. In a previous Smart Bytes®, we discussed whether 10,000 steps a day is the ideal target. Even if you’re aiming at the lower end of the range linked with good health, tracking your steps may show you that 30 minutes of walking is not enough to get you there. That’s what it showed me.

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What I learned from my pedometer:

 Working from home with no errands and “too busy” to take a walk:  <2000 steps (yikes!)

(normal cooking and minimal chores, but no housecleaning or yard work)

Work day at home with 30-minute walk with dog:  4,800 steps (“sedentary” even with this walk!)

Work day at home with 30-minute walk, no dog: 5,940 steps          (not sedentary, but still not at level linked with best health)

*For the average person, a 30-minute walk is said to add 3,000-3,700 steps. My natural pace is quite brisk if I’m not deliberately slowing down or forced to slow down by my dog.

Work day at home with one or two 10-minute walking breaks, plus a 30-minute walk with dog and a 30-minute walk (no dog) with fast intervals:  10,400-12,110 steps

Day attending research conference with meetings in same hotel where I was staying: 1,000 steps at 5:00 pm

*Seeing this number on my pedometer, after meetings ended, I changed clothes and went for a walk, then walked to meet colleagues for dinner and walked back to hotel: day-end total: 10,011 steps

On vacation, a day with no “exercise” but lots of walking as part of our activities:  18,883 steps

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How to Choose a Tracker? Know what you want & what’s fluff

If you decide to try using a physical activity tracker, you’ve got many options.

  • Devices include bands worn around your arm or your wrist, models integrated into a watch, apps that use your smart phone’s built-in tracker, and pedometers that you clip on your belt or place in your pocket.
  • What will you track? The most basic option is a simple step-counter. Depending on the device you choose, you can also track total distance moved, time in moderate to vigorous activity, heart rate, sleep time (and possibly quality), and calories burned (either in activity or a total for the day).
  • What will you do with the information you get? Some trackers have a memory that stores data for 7 to 30 days. Some are able to download the data you track to store and display on your smart phone or computer, and perhaps share it with a fitness coach or health professional. Some link to social media so you can share your progress with others.
  • Trackers also vary in battery life and water resistance.
  • How little can you spend? You can buy a simple pedometer for $5.00, but these super-inexpensive models often don’t have a long lifespan and might be off on step count by up to 45 percent. They often use a mechanism that needs to hang straight from a belt, which means that people with large waists and an apple shape have even more difficulty getting accurate information. For about twenty dollars, you can get a reliable pedometer from fitness stores or online.
  • How much can you spend? Trackers that add more features, perhaps including a GPS system or allowing you to wirelessly transfer data collected to other devices via Bluetooth, can cost $75.00 to over $300.00. Recently published data from university testing shows several trackers that are generally accurate, giving step and distance estimates within ten to fifteen percent of figures from research-quality devices.

Key point: If you’re using a tracker as more than just an amusement, simply buying the cheapest pedometer you can find is probably a waste of money, since the results don’t give you accurate information. Don’t, however, spend extra for features you won’t use.

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How to Test a Pedometer for Accuracy

1) Go to a space where you can walk at your normal walking pace, and clip the pedometer on your belt or waistband directly above one of your knees. (Or place in your pocket if it’s a model designed to work that way).

2) Reset the pedometer to “0” and close cover (if applicable).

3) Walk 20 steps.

4) Open the pedometer carefully so you don’t jar it, and check the reading.

Ideally, it will have only a 5% error rate, which would mean a reading between 19 and 21. A 10% error rate is reasonable (corresponding to 18 or 22 steps when you really walked 20). If it’s off by more than that, readjust its position and give it a couple more tries; if results are the same, choose another option.

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Will a Tracker Help You Lose Weight?will an activity tracker help you lose weight?

Without changes in eating, people in short-term intervention studies using pedometers to help them add 2000-4000 more daily steps average 1 to 2 pounds of weight loss in 10 weeks, with a typical range among of 0 to 9 pounds.

Researchers often use this to calculate that over a year, that would mean a five-pound weight loss. In these studies that’s a smaller weight loss than would be expected to have much medical effect from the weight loss itself. However, we can’t really use short-term trials to predict long-term results. Weight loss could become greater as people become more fit and move faster. Alternatively, loss could slow down if they don’t continue to push themselves or lose motivation.

In reality, since most adults gain 1-2 pounds a year, if an activity tracker helped you meet walking recommendations and you simply didn’t gain weight, that would be a plus for health.

Using an activity tracker’s calorie calculations to guide how much you can eat may be counter-productive. This seems to be the source of the stories that caught so many people’s attention claiming that using an activity tracker led them to gain weight. Several of my colleagues report that such devices have provided calorie recommendations they consider inappropriately high compared to what they have individually calculated for patients.

So many factors affect how many calories you burn in a day, if you want help identifying a calorie range that’s right for you, I encourage you to see a registered dietitian for help. If you want to work on weight on your own, try tracking what you’re eating now and then cutting back by 500 to 1000 calories. (Of course, the goal is to do this in a way that reduces less-healthful food choices and still provides the health-promoting foods you need.)

A pedometer can’t do magic, but it can increase awareness of your activity level, allowing you to track your progress toward a specific goal, and (perhaps most importantly) increase your self-confidence that you really can achieve a healthy level of physical activity. That’s why, for me and for many of the people with whom I’ve worked, the biggest benefit from using a tracker comes simply from the functions of time and steps in activity. If you don’t want or need more, don’t pay for more.

Bottom Line:  Finding an accurate physical activity tracker does not guarantee health benefits.  However, studies involving people who differed widely in age, weight and health conditions show potential to increase activity and support some health benefits. How you use your pedometer or other tracker can make a tremendous difference in the results you get. Come back to Smart Bytes® for more on making healthy lifestyles doable, including a future post sharing what researchers and health professional colleagues share what they’ve learned about maximizing trackers’ potential to help.

In fact, sign up to receive Smart Bytes® by email (see left side bar) so you won’t miss a thing on this and other topics that help you take healthy living from daunting to doable!


Bravata, DM et al.  Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health. A Systematic Review.  JAMA. 2007; 298(19)2296.

Richardson, CR et al.  A Meta-Analysis of Pedometer-Based Walking Interventions and Weight Loss.  Ann Fam Med. 2008; 6:69.

Lee J-M, Young-Won MS, Welk GJ. TRACK IT: Validity and Utility of Consumer-Based Physical Activity Monitors. ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal. 2014; 18(4):16-21.

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2 Responses to Do You Need an Activity Tracker? How to Know, How to Choose

  • Eric Williams says:

    This column is very timely for me as I have just been pondering this exact question. Thanks as always for the great advice.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Eric. It’s something many people are pondering right now, I think.
      Although the “right” choice will be different for each of us, we can all learn from one another’s experiences. So I hope you’ll write back and share what you decide to do, and how it works out for you.

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