Do Fitness Trackers Improve Your Health?

woman checking heart rate on fitness tracker

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Fitness trackers and smartwatches are popular tools for getting a detailed look into your daily activity and health data. These gadgets provide logs of various metrics such as your daily total steps, heart rate, sleep quantity, sleep quality, active minutes, and more.

Fitness trackers also may help boost your motivation to make and stick to health goals while providing in-depth feedback so you can fine-tune your routines for the best results. Like any fitness tool, the benefits depend on how you use them and your personal experience with them.

While knowing more about your habits and your body's response can be an empowering process, keep in mind that like anything, too much of a good thing is not always best. Here is how fitness trackers can help improve your health and how to best use them for reaching your goals in a balanced way.

Fitness Trackers Can Help You Move More

Fitness trackers can help you move more. If you have a sedentary job, getting enough movement into your day or week is tricky. Research shows that the average person only gets slightly over 5,000 steps per day, with some reports reporting an average as low as 3,000.

While there is not a set amount of steps you need to meet each day, moving more increases your total daily energy expenditure.

When you increase your step count, you alsoare reducing time spent being sedentary. Research shows that those who track their total daily steps with fitness trackers increase their movement both in the short and long term.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

Many fitness trackers monitor your sleep in various ways. Even the most basic models often track your total time spent asleep. More in-depth tracking features include sleeping heart rate, heart rate variability, restlessness, and breathing rate.

The trackers use this data and more to determine how long you spent in each sleep stage and what the quality of your sleep was. Often, this determination is provided through a numerical score.

Keep in mind, this data and its reporting are the best guess and not necessarily exact due to a lack of technology used during actual sleep studies. Still, the data can help you see where your sleep habits may need to improve.

Where fitness trackers shine in improving sleep hygiene is helping you become more consistent and intentional with your sleep habits.

Consistent sleep and wake times lead to better sleep quality outcomes. Using your fitness tracker to set bedtime and wake time goals with reminders can help you become more intentional with your sleep routine.

Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, or 7 to 8 hours if you are over 65 and do not feel like you need more. Also, start winding down for bed at least 30 minutes before bedtime, keeping this time consistent each day, even on the weekends.

Increase Your Weekly Active Minutes

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a weekly minimum of 150-minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-minutes of high-intensity cardiovascular activity (or an equivalent mix of both) for adults, along with 2 days of resistance training targeting all major muscle groups.

Despite these recommendations, reports say that only 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 high school students get enough physical activity.

An estimated 31 million adults age 50 or older get no physical activity aside from what is needed for daily living. This kind of inactive lifestyle can increase your risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and obesity.

Some fitness trackers, such as the more recent versions of the Fitbit Charge series, track active minutes, which are scored based on exercise intensity. Some examples of active minutes might be intentional exercise or something like cleaning or a walk that gets your heart rate up.

You can typically set goals within the tracker's app for how many active minutes you want to get, although there is a default for getting the recommended 150 minutes. Anytime you achieve active minutes, you get a notification.

When you reach the goal, the tracker will notify you. Using these markers as well as goal-setting functions can help you monitor and achieve your recommended active daily minutes.

Balance Your Energy Intake

Fitness trackers keep a tally of your total daily energy expenditure. Although this data is a best guess only, it can provide you with an individualized look at how much energy you expend day-to-day. Using this feature to plan your daily energy intake (i.e. how many calories you consume), can help you balance your energy intake to your output.

Using this data also can help you achieve your weight management goals. While the calorie expenditure data may not be entirely accurate, it may provide you with an estimate to inform your strategy for increasing your lean body mass, decreasing body fat, or maintaining your current weight.

Some trackers allow you to input your food intake and display graphs that reveal your total intake versus output. They also display prompts for how much you should eat to reach your weight management goals.

You don't have to change your intake every day to match each day's output. Using a running average per week or month should be accurate enough to help you achieve results. Tally up your weekly average energy expenditure and either add or subtract calories to it to find your daily calorie intake goal.

Improve Your Cardiovascular Health

If improving your cardiovascular fitness is a goal, fitness trackers can provide information to help you achieve this. Most fitness trackers relay data related to your cardiovascular fitness based on your heart rate during and after physical activity. These measurements can reveal a picture of your cardiovascular health compared to other people of your age and sex.

Another measurement of your cardiovascular health is your resting heart rate (RHR), which is the number of times your heart beats per minute (bpm) while entirely at rest. This measurement determines your physical fitness and can be improved with cardiovascular exercise.

A lower resting heart rate is often indicative of a physically fit individual (although some medical conditions are associated with a low heart rate). An adult's healthy resting heart rate is 60 to 80 bpm, although very athletic individuals can have resting heart rates below 40.

High resting heart rates signify and lead to health problems such as metabolic syndrome. Getting more activity can help lower your resting heart rate, which you can use your fitness tracker to monitor.

You will be able to view your trending daily resting heart rate, which is a great source of motivation and goal tracking. Vigorous aerobic exercise has the greatest effect on lowering your resting heart rate although moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking is still effective to a lesser degree. If you are not able to exercise vigorously, starting with lower intensities and working your way up will still provide a significant impact on your cardiovascular health.

Contact a healthcare provider right away if you are not active but have a low RHR combined with dizziness or shortness of breath.

Reduce Stress and Boost Recovery

Stress management is a significant factor in overall good health. Poor stress management that leads to high levels of stress can cause problems with your sleep as well as with your immune, digestive, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems.

Some fitness trackers provide reporting on stress levels with a stress management score. For instance, Fitbit also allows you to log how you are feeling in relation to daily stress and mood. Additionally, many trackers include stress-reducing features such as deep-breathing programs, which might help reduce your stress, at least temporarily.

Stress management scores can come from a combination of data such as heart rate variability during sleep and waking, resting heart rate elevation, how much physical activity you have done, and sleep patterns. The score is the best guess and not meant for medical purposes. Match the score with your personal experience and how you feel.

Downsides to Fitness Trackers

While fitness trackers are excellent tools for helping you reach your health goals, misuse of this tool is possible. For some people, tracking your health in such a precise and detailed manner can lead to obsession, anxiety, and stress. Sleep tracking can also cause something called orthosomnia, which is insomnia related to focusing too much on perfecting your sleep.

Becoming too caught up with perfecting and tracking your data might make insomnia worse or increase levels of anxiety.

In this case, it may be best to take a break from your tracker, or set goals that are less specific but still help you work toward good health. Instead of setting specific active minute goals or sleep quality goals that can create anxiety, commit to tracking your daily overall activity levels, and try to add a little more each day.

Baby-step-like progressions are typically easier to maintain and provide a sense of accomplishment when achieved. Focus on your strengths and accomplishments instead of where you are lacking for the best chance at sustainable habit formation.

A Word From Verywell

Knowledge is a powerful tool and fitness trackers provide a wealth of information that can be applied to your daily habits to help form lasting motivation and change toward your health goals. Remember that not every piece of data will be accurate and it is still important to seek out medical advice and testing for any concerns.

If you find your fitness tracker causes more anxiety than motivation, it may be best to re-evaluate your intentions. Speak to a healthcare provider or a mental health professional if your stress and anxiety interfere with your day-to-day life.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.