What's the Best Way to Track Physical Activity?Nov. 18, 2020 - Katie McCallum
It's 2014. You're mid-step when your wrist starts vibrating. You look down at your fitness tracker to see those 5 little LED lights flashing in sequence — basically doing the wave in your honor. You just hit 10,000 steps!
When it came to tracking your activity back in the day, steps reigned supreme.
Now, when you're mid-step and your wrist starts vibrating, 9 times out of 10 there's no rewarding sequence of lights — just another notification that Bed Bath & Beyond is having a sale or someone tagged in you in a Facebook post.
It's no secret that wristband fitness trackers have become, well, complicated. First of all, they're not just for tracking your activity anymore. In fact, at this point, "wristband fitness tracker" is almost a derogatory term for that sophisticated device wrapped around your wrist. And if you are still using it to keep up with your activity, there are endless panels of data to sift through and metrics that sound great...but you have no idea what they actually mean.
Speaking of which — what happened to steps being front-and-center on fitness trackers? In fact, on an Apple watch, you actually have to scroll to see how many steps you've taken.
Here to demystify how we actually should be tracking our physical activity is Amanda Holliday, health fitness coordinator at Houston Methodist.
Where did 10,000 steps come from?
When wristband fitness trackers first became popular, those of us who wore them became indoctrinated with the 10,000-step goal. It was a tough goal! And hitting it sometimes felt like the biggest accomplishment of the day.
But where did the 10,000-step goal even come from?
It turns out this magic number is the result of a Japanese study dating back to 1965 — and it's stuck with us ever since (well, sort of). This study looked at how physical activity (or, inactivity in this case) corresponded to health in older women. The study found that many older women were fairly sedentary (averaging only 2,500 steps per day), and that taking closer to 5,000 steps per day reduced a woman's risk of death by almost half. This risk was further reduced by stepping even more — beyond 5,000 steps, but leveling off around 7,500.
So how did we end up with a 10,000-step goal instead of what sounds like should've been a 7,500 one? The thought is that 10,000 steps is just easier to remember, making for a simpler message to market.
Is tracking your activity really as simple as counting your steps?
Before we dive into how we should be tracking our activity, we need to level-set. What does "physical activity" mean exactly?
"There's light physical activity, which includes any movement you make — from getting up to fill a glass with water to stretching for a coffee mug stored on the top shelf. Then, there's exercise, a subcategory of physical activity that's more intense or strenuous," explains Holliday. "Both have benefits, and it's important to be sure you're getting plenty of each."
Our bodies aren't meant to sit all day, but — through no fault of our own — a lot of our daily routines are sitting-centric. We sit in our cars, we sit at our desks, we sit on the couch after a long day at work — all of this sitting can add up to a lot of idle time where we're just flat-out inactive.
"When you're sitting all day, your body tenses up in ways that it shouldn't. Standing up and moving around helps relieve this tension and gets your blood flowing," says Holliday. "I recommend devoting at least 10 minutes throughout the day to being physically active — whether that means stretching, marching in place or taking a lap around your office or home."
But when it comes to making sure you're just simply being active enough, do steps still reign supreme?
"These days, every activity tracker has its own set of metrics and goals it uses to help encourage you sit less and move more. When it comes to tracking my general activity level, I still opt for simplifying things by focusing on my step count," says Holliday. "If I notice I'm way behind on steps, it's motivation for me to get up and walk around. The goal is to be moving around throughout the day, and taking steps every hour is a great way to accomplish that."
So while you probably don't need 10,000 steps a day, Holliday says that choosing a step goal that's realistic for you and keeping an eye on your step count throughout the day can help make sure that you're moving around enough.
"The catch with tracking steps is that — unless you're getting a lot of them — steps aren't really the best way to make sure you're getting enough exercise, which is the other half of the physical-activity equation," says Holliday.
How should you track your exercise?
"The planned, increased level of physical exertion that comes along with a workout brings even more benefits to being active, so it's important to be sure you're getting enough exercise," says Holliday.
The added benefits of exercise include:
- Weight loss and weight maintenance
- Improved cardiovascular fitness (aka heart health)
- Increased muscle
- Better sleep
- Reduced stress and anxiety
"It's recommended that you get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, which breaks down to just about 30 minutes per day," says Holliday. "Given these parameters, tracking exercise, in particular, becomes less about steps and more about the duration and intensity of your workout."
To help track your exercise, Holliday recommends using a fitness tracker that can monitor your heart rate while recording your exercise.
A moderate-intensity workout is any activity that raises your resting heart rate between 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. You can calculate your heart-rate zone manually, but if your fitness tracker measures your heart rate throughout the day, it already knows your target heart-rate zone and can show you how much time you've spent exercising at a moderate intensity.
"The benefit of a fitness tracker is that it takes the guesswork out of determining how long you exercised and how intense the exercise was for you, specifically," says Holliday. "We all need that 30 minutes of exercise, but the type of activity that gets us there differs from person to person."
But watch out, being active is about more than just getting your exercise in, only to promptly plop yourself into a seated position for the rest of the day. Remember, exercise is only one piece of the physical-activity equation.
"After getting your 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise in — and even if you spent more time or did something more intense — sitting for the rest of the day still counts as time spent being physically inactive," warns Holliday. "Just as exercising is important, so is moving throughout the day. And that's where tracking your steps, in addition to your exercise, comes into play."
Overall, the nuance of physical activity and exercise can sound like a lot, especially if you're just starting out. But if you're on a journey to get more active, any way you start is better than not starting at all.
"Whether we're talking about physical activity in general or exercise more specifically, the real goal is to avoid excessive physical inactivity," says Holliday. "If you're just starting out to become more active, it's okay to go slow. Start by taking a 10-minute walk, and then adding a minute to your walk every day. Being active comes with so many benefits, and any amount of activity is better than none."