How to Use Your Fitness Tracker to Actually Get Fitter

The data can sometimes be overwhelming. Here’s what counts — and how to make the most of it.

guide to life tracking fitness data
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Welcome to Guide to Life, a series of tips, tricks and insights designed to help you get the most from your gear.

From the Apple Watch to FitBit to Whoop, fitness trackers have come a long way since the days of simple step counters. And while all the data they can now track is awesome, it’s only useful if you know what to do with it. You need to understand which numbers matter and which direction they are moving, so that you can see your progress, draw inspiration from it and course-correct when needed.

To help you cut through the clutter, we’ve recruited some experts. Corey Lewis, ACE, is a New York City-based personal trainer and founder of the digital wellness platform 1AND1 LIFE. Nicole Lombardo, PT, DPT, CSCS, is a San Jose-based doctor of physical therapy and CrossFit trainer. Alex Davis is the co-founder of the couples-oriented fitness site Ryan and Alex Duo Life. Heed their input about the stats and features that really make a difference, and turn that shiny bauble strapped to your wrist into more than a fashion statement.

Heart Rate

“During a workout, the immediate feedback of heart rate is imperative to identifying the exercises that provide the biggest cardio punch,” says Davis. “Believe it or not, most people do their HIIT and sprints too slowly and jog too fast for maximum fat-burning effect.”

Heart rate data can be equally important when you’re not breaking a sweat. “A great way to mark progress with cardiovascular endurance is to see a decrease in resting heart rate, or RHR,” explains Lombardo. “If you aren't recovering enough, sleeping adequately or have too much stress in your everyday life, you will have a higher RHR. Some fitness trackers, such as the Whoop strap, use this as a marker to tell you whether or not you are recovered enough to handle low, medium or high strain workouts.” Proceed accordingly.


“Step detection helps with determining activity levels and calories burned,” says Lewis. “I aim for 15,000 steps. That does a great job holding me accountable, so if I fall a little short one day, I will work hard to make it up the next day.” While Lewis’s count is on the high end, science supports serious stepping. Davis alerted us to a pertinent Obesity study: researchers found adult dieters who lost 30 pounds and maintained or continued to lose weight tracked 12,000 steps per day, while overweight adults tracked just 6,500 steps.


“The calories burned metric gives us great insight into how active we are on a daily basis, and the intensity of our workouts, as well as reminding us if we’ve reached your daily goals,” says Lewis. It includes not just your workout but the whole day’s activity, including walking, working and resting, notes Davis, adding that it’s tricky to find with the Apple Watch. Look for it in Activity app on your phone, below the ‘Move’ section graph in tiny print.

While this data can be helpful and motivational, Lombardo offers words of warning. “ I believe there is value for counting calories if you are trying to lose weight, but when you are trading workouts for treats, it's counterproductive,” she explains. “Burning 500 calories in a long workout does not justify an unhealthy meal choice, especially if your goal is long-term weight loss and overall health.”

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Sleep and Breathing

These two biological needs may seem obvious, but many of us struggle with them. “Keeping track of sleep on a daily basis is very important,” notes Lewis. “We need to be striving for seven to nine hours, because falling short can have a detrimental effect on your metabolism, mood, energy levels, food cravings and more.” Many fitness trackers can also send you reminders on improving your breathing — and simply to breathe — which can help reduce stress and, like a good night’s rest, make your whole biological unit function better.

Health Stats and Apps

“One pretty awesome feature that most people aren't aware of is the ability to share your health data and stats with your medical specialist or primary health care provider,” says Lewis. “This is an efficient and intelligent way to help them stay in tune with your overall health and be aware of any unusual patterns.”

Lewis is also a big proponent of Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal app and Apple’s Health app. “These apps will help you focus on learning about your health and reaching nutritional goals to go along with your fitness goals,” he explains. “By recording what you eat, these apps then have the ability to show the entire macronutrient breakdown — calories, carbs, proteins, fats — as well as other metrics, helping you determine if it is necessary for you to modify your food intake, and know if you are on the right track.”

The Big Picture

As helpful as the day-to-day features are, it’s also important to take a step back and compare your week-to-week, month-to-month and even longer-term stats. Doing so will help you see the general arc of efforts, and provide motivation, revealing improvements even when you may not feel them. “Create realistic goals using the data and numbers that get provided,” Lewis concludes. “Use the feedback to better yourself and make progress in your fitness journey.”

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