If you start small, there's only one direction to go: UP.

Last week I wrote about the power of charting your progress, which is the perfect segue into the second part of my thoughts about the Fitbit (the first part can be found here).

First of all, although it seems silly to state the obvious, I think it often gets lost in reviews: fitness trackers are not a silver bullet to getting in shape or losing weight. They do not make you fit. If you find it difficult to get up at the crack of dawn and go for a run, it is likely that the fitness tracker on your wrist will not be enough to propel you out of bed. It still comes down to you: your discipline, your willpower, and your desire to make a change. But if you are interested in increasing your activity level, this is perhaps the best reason to get one of these trackers, regardless of brand: they allow you to easily measure what you’re doing and to make adjustments to your behaviour accordingly.

However, knowing what works best for you is the key to getting the most out of the device. My past life as a researcher has shown the importance of being self-aware when it comes to knowing what motivates you. For some, it’s competition with other people that gets the blood pumping. For others, however, it may be about competing with yourself and improving on a day-by-day basis. I fall into the latter camp, and by making tweaks to how I use the Fitbit, I have been able to better incorporate it into my fitness plans.

In part this stems from one of the books I read last year, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. While I can’t say that it has changed my life, it has certainly helped me change how I think about things, especially reaching goals. Typically I try to go from 0 to 60 with very little in between, a mindset of “I must achieve this NOW”. The problem with this? It can be disheartening when little progress is made.  But if you start small, there’s only one direction to go: up.

Which brings me to another book, one that has been on my must-read list for years and which I finally got around to reading: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. One of the first chapters deals with the power of defaults: most people don’t change a default selection, whether it’s picking a retirement plan or choosing privacy settings. The point the authors make is that “choice architects”—those designing the sign-up forms—must be very careful with the default selection as it is going to be the option selected most frequently.

The default choice for most fitness trackers is 10,000 steps. The research behind this number does not stem from any agreed-upon science, but from a Japanese study done in the 1960s.* One of the problems with this is that if you are starting from the position of being sedentary or only doing light activity, you might only hit 3000-5000 steps in a day—or less. Aiming for that 5-figure step count from the start can be discouraging. After all, if you’ve been at work all day and just want to go home and enjoy dinner and time with your family, fitting in another several thousand steps just isn’t in the cards. But setting small goals can help you eventually get there. For example, if you find that you walk an average of 4000 steps a day without really trying, then the first goal distance can be set to 4500. This can gradually be increased, allowing positive momentum and the sense of achievement to yield more progress.

On top of all this, the Fitbit also offers a layer of gamification along with its tracking abilities. This includes badges to be earned for achieving certain milestones, and you are literally given stars when you’ve met your target for the day. My prior research has shown that this can be effective; at the very least, it makes it easy to see if you’re hitting your goals. If health and fitness is one of your New Year’s resolutions this year, then a fitness tracker can be a great ally. Just don’t forget those gold stars and to take it one step at a time.

* A new study of Scottish postal workers indicate that 15,000 steps a day may be a better target. Regardless of total step count, getting out and about can help your physical and mental well-being.

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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