You see them on wrists everywhere – restaurant servers, at the office, in the gym. Fitness trackers seem to have become de rigeur among the fitness conscious. They're becoming so popular that companies are even producing ones that look more like fashion jewelry than fitness monitors. As with many trends, it can be hard to tell whether this is just a passing one, or the start of something more.

Lisa Milbrandt, UW Health Fitness Center manager, has also noted the increasing trend of fitness trackers among the center's members. And, she thinks, they offer a lot of great potential if they are actually used.

"A lot of people who currently use trackers are already fit. They love technology, love being able to track and download their workouts," she notes. "Trackers can be really beneficial but only if you use them consistently. And for those who don't want to or can't join a class, the wearable devices may be a great way to stay motivated."

Are You Someone Who Will Actually Wear a Tracker?

If you're considering a device, Milbrandt recommends asking yourself, "Am I someone who is going to actually wear and use this, or is it just a novelty?" She also suggests talking with others who actually use the trackers to find out what they think. Mary Werner, a lifeguard at the Fitness Center, began wearing a tracker thanks to her mom.

"My mom really liked the one she wore, so she got me one for Christmas," said Werner. "It's a great subtle reminder to myself to try to incorporate more activity into my day and to reach my daily goal of 10,000 steps. I would highly recommend getting a device."

Milbrandt says that's one of the nice things about trackers – you can see your progress, which can help maintain momentum when positive changes aren't always obvious.

"We know it takes about six weeks of maintaining a behavior change for it to actually stick. If we can help people reach that point, then they actually start to miss the behavior when they don't do it," explains Milbrandt. "With the trackers, we can see those changes quickly – more steps than the previous day, or consistently reaching those steps each day – that can be the positive feedback people need to keep going."

Werner's device syncs with an app on her phone. She can receive weekly emails with a summary of activities including information like calories burned and how much time she spent being active. She can even compete with others who have similar devices.

"I am a competitive person, so if I am in a competition with someone I have more incentive to try and go above and beyond my step goals," comments Werner.

Have Patience

Even with the additional motivation of competing against others, research shows that approximately 50 percent of those who start wearing a tracker stop within a year. It's difficult to turn external motivations – like competing against others – into internal motivators. That's why Milbrandt encourages wearers to be patient.

"If you get a tracker, give yourself at least eight weeks and watch yourself. If nothing else, you're going to learn something about yourself in that time. And it's important to be realistic about your goals. You're not going to go from a sedentary lifestyle to walking 10,000 steps in a single day," she comments.

After putting the device on, Milbrandt recommends having a few "normal" days so you can establish what a typical day for you is like. Then slowly, over the course of time, challenge yourself. Try for 100 more steps the next day. If you don't make it, aim for 50 more steps. Or, see if you can do the same number of steps at least five days in a row.

Over time, she notes, you'll eventually have made progress because you're doing more than you would have otherwise done in a normal day. And she points out that setbacks are common, and make it easy to think we're off track. But we're often not as off track as we think we are.

"We are impatient by nature and want to see change quickly. And we get easily distracted. But, if we plan for setbacks and realize we're still making progress, we can continue to find a positive way to move forward. Behavior patterns are so ingrained, it's really challenging to establish new ones."

The Benefits of Consistency

A common complaint about trackers is that they are not always accurate in recording activity. Milbrandt points out that the benefit they offer is consistency. When you use the device daily, it is an opportunity to see the trends over time. So focus less on specific details and more on the bigger picture.

And, as companies continue to refine the accuracy of the devices, the trackers offer benefits we haven't even discovered yet.

"As the technology continues to evolve, they could offer significant advantages in helping people not only maintain healthy habits, but actually identify health concerns," says Milbrandt. "It's exciting to think of the possibilities."

Article originally published March 2015

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