For the past year a blue wristband has been a constant companion. Sitting snugly on my wrist, it counts each step. Logging my activity and inactivity minute-by-minute the fitness activity tracker is a daily truth bomb in the quest for the sometimes illusive 10,000 steps.
I’ve had old-style pedometers in the past but found them inconvenient to clip onto clothing, inaccurate or the clicking noise annoying. This new type of tracker requires regular charging (about every four days for my older Fitbit or daily for an iWatch). It can be networked with friends for accountability and support, and is easier to wear.
Why 10,000 steps?
Depending on the length of your stride, 10,000 steps are between 6.5 and 8 kilometres. The average time it takes to clock up these steps is 100 minutes. In the 1960’s a Japanese doctor calculated the average adult in that country walked less than half that distance each day and by doubling the figure he reckoned it would make people fitter and leaner. Pedometers became so popular in Japan that, at one point, the average household owned at least three of them.
Making 10,000 steps the fitness Holy Grail is more arbitrary than scientific. The emphasis is on incidental movement, not just vigorous workouts. Research tells us more about the consequences of too few steps, rather than an accurate daily goal. Less than 5,000 steps a day is associated with negative health outcomes, while 7,500 steps is associated with an ideal mental health benefit (see facts below). The actual amount of steps required to maintain or loose weight is a more complex metric including both what you eat and the intensity of exercise you undertake.
Fitness nag or mindfulness aid?
I respond better to the carrot than the stick. I use my Fitbit as a gentle reminder to move my body more often. On days when I don’t reach my goal, I can aim for 70,000 steps a week, keeping activity flexible to fit with the weeks’ demands. I’m mindful not to sit for too long or take less than 5,000 steps on any single day.
My old pedometer and newer tracker have taught me a lot about how I use my body. For example:
- The earlier in the day I start moving, the more successful I am at achieving my goals.
- When I used to walk to work, I’d hit my goal at lunchtime as long as I left the office.
- With a home-based practice, getting out of the house for a morning or lunchtime walk is mandatory, but still not enough.
- Inactivity is as important to track as activity – research shows the importance of regular movement across the day rather than just having one concentrated spurt.
- An hour of vigorous dancing can clock up 8,000 steps. (I love No Lights No Lycra.)
- Being behind in my daily step count really encourages me to get off the train a stop or two earlier, take the stairs, dance around the living room and take an evening walk.
- The 2,000 step lights on the Fitbit can also be used as a reminder to drink water.
- Even after a year I still get a little thrill when the tracker buzzes and flashes when 10,000 steps are reached!
How far should you take activity tracking?
Fitness trackers now come with a vast array of add-ons – from social media connectivity, to sleep activity, heart rate and more.
For the first week I wore my Fitbit 24 hours a day. The sleep tracking function, while fascinating, became unhealthily obsessive for me. Some friends love it and use this function mindfully to encourage them to get their eight hours sleep each night. However I just don’t like being wired to any device 24/7.
There are concerns about Bluetooth and other wireless technology having negative health impacts. Currently there’s more speculation than hard evidence but I prefer a little time out from my Fitbit.
I don’t take my Fitbit on holiday and have the odd day off from it, if wearing the device begins to feel a bit tyrannical or obsessive. If you are prone to being obsessive about your body, fitness or exercise – these devices my not be advisable for you mental health.
I found after a while of using a tracker for a few months, I could gauge much more accurately how much walking and what I needed to do to reach your goals.
Keep in mind the 10,000 step target is an imprecise target, which was part of a marketing campaign for a pedometer.
Who owns your data?
Some people have also raised concerns about whether negative data recorded by your tracker (such as inactivity, irregular heart rate, etc) could be used by insurers to increase premiums or reject claims. As far as I know this has yet to be tested but there could be reasons for caution about anything that is publicly networked.
But a cautionary warning – in Australia, we don’t own our data. It can be captured and sold without our permission.
Evidence based steps
An analysis of over 800 peer-reviewed articles on ‘steps’ for health found:
- Women who achieved more than 7,500 steps per day had a half the prevalence of depression than women taking less than 5,000 steps each day.
- Women who took between 7,500 and 9,999 steps per day had a significantly lower BMI (body mass index) than those who took between 5,000 and 7,500 steps per day.
- Men who averaged only 2,000 steps a day could lose an average of 2.8cm waist circumference if they took an extra 2,000 steps each day.
- Individuals taking less than 5,000 daily steps had a substantially higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease risk factors than those taking a higher number of steps a day.
- Most people who walk 7,500 or more steps each day report having more energy than those who are sedentary.
UPDATE: In a year of wearing of my Fitbit I neither lost nor gained weight but that wasn’t the aim. I wanted to move by body more and I definitely increased my daily activity. While I feel fitter, it would be good to have prompts for cardio and resistance exercise as well.
About 14 months after buying the Fitbit – it died. I never replaced it. A standard Iphone app (look for the heart) tracks your steps and flights of stairs walked each day. It’s not calibrated, so just a rough guide, but it serves as a useful reminder about daily movement. And yes, Apple is tracking your activity data, whether you use it or not!
Comparison of popular fitness trackers (including accuracy).
More about wearable health technology.
Tips to help you get the most out of your fitness activity tracker.