What fitness metrics are truly important to track? You can track nearly everything with an app or wearable, or some smart combination of the two: sleep, steps, heart rate, calories, nutrition … the list goes on. But do you really need to track your fitness? The answer is yes.
If You Want to Improve Your Fitness, Track It
Studies show that one of the best ways to make improvements is to first know where you stand, giving you a clear picture of how healthy and active you are, or aren’t, and where you can make improvements. Keeping track of your progress will provide accountability to yourself — and an instant “pat on the back” when you meet your goals. (Or, in my case, an instant “vibration on the wrist” from my Fitbit when I reach 10,000 steps in a day.)
So What Should You Track?
Below are the top five fitness metrics to track. The first three apply to everyone because they are important no matter your fitness goals — whether you want to get active or stay active, or be healthy, or lose weight, or gain muscle. The last two are specialized, depending on your specific goals and needs.
I’ve said it before, sleep is the foundation of health. According to Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist at Oxford University, the quantity of your time asleep affects the quality of your time awake. For the longest time, I thought something was wrong with me because I always felt so tired during the day. Then I started using my Fitbit to track my sleep. I realized that even when I was in bed for eight hours, I wasn’t getting a full eight hours of sleep. When I first started tracking my sleep, I was getting about six hours each night, on average. Now that I’m tracking it regularly, I make a conscious effort to avoid shortchanging myself on sleep too many nights in a row. I don’t always achieve my eight-hour goal, but when I feel exhausted at the end of the week, I can see how much sleep I didn’t get. And I can try to do better the following week.
2. Heart rate.
No matter your fitness goals, everyone needs to be heart-healthy. A wearable that tracks your heart rate enables you to determine the intensity level of your exercise, whether it is walking, running, yoga, whatever. Ideally, to be heart-healthy, you need 30 minutes of activity at 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate at least three times per week. (Five times a week is better!) You can most accurately determine your maximum heart rate with a stress test, but if you are generally healthy with no heart issues, you can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. If you are 40 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 180. So, three to five times per week, for half an hour, you want to engage in an activity where your heart rate stays between 108 and 144 beats per minute.
3. Activity level.
Different apps and trackers measure this differently. It can be tracking the number of steps you take in a day or reminding you to get up and move periodically if you are too sedentary. About 80 million Americans are considered sedentary, which means they average about 2,000 steps per day. Using a fitness tracker can help you see where you stand (or sit). Getting at least 10,000 steps each day — which is the equivalent of almost five miles — is the recommended minimum activity.
4. Your preferred fitness activity.
Depending on your preferred fitness activity, a wearable may be helpful. For example, if you are a runner, you may want a tracker with GPS, such as the Apple Watch or Garmin Forerunner, which can log your runs, distance, time, and pace. If you prefer guided workouts and exercise routines, there are limitless apps that can help you. For example, Runtastic Results provides over 100 workouts that use your own bodyweight so that you don’t need a gym or special equipment. There are hundreds more apps — among my favorites are Daily Workouts and Pocket Yoga — as well as numerous YouTube fitness channels. (I like BeFit.)
5. Calories or nutrition.
You may want to track your calories and nutrition, for at least two weeks, to understand how your eating habits are helping or hindering you. MyFitnessPal has been around for a while, but it’s still one of the best apps out there for tracking not only calories but also nutrition. And it links to some fitness trackers like Fitbit so your allotted calorie intake automatically adjusts based on your tracked activity.
We all have a tendency to overestimate the amount of activity we do and underestimate the calories that we eat. So get tracking, and get on track to meet your health goals!