Counting your steps with an activity tracker can motivate you to keep walking. Here's what to look for in an activity tracker and how to set your fitness goals.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Walking is a great way to get and stay fit. But are you doing enough to see results? Using activity-tracking devices and apps, or even an old school pedometer, can help you set and reach your fitness goals. See how these tools can get you off on the right foot.

Activity trackers, also known as activity monitors or fitness trackers, are the modern equivalent of pedometers. But they do more than count steps. They can determine how far you've traveled and what type of movement you were doing, such as walking or jogging. And many measure sleep quality and length, compute calorie intake and the number of calories burned, monitor your heart rate, and serve as alarm clocks or watches.

Some display your progress in real time; all can show it later on a smartphone, tablet or computer. They can even provide social support through apps or websites. And activity trackers can assist with your goal setting by giving cues and rewards to encourage healthy behaviors.

Many activity trackers are made to be worn on your wrist, like a watch or bracelet, although some can be clipped to your clothing. Most can be worn round-the-clock. They are not totally accurate, but overall they provide more activity information than a pedometer does.

Prefer to keep things simple? Then a pedometer might be a good choice for you. A pedometer counts steps for any activity that involves steplike movement, such as walking, jogging and running.

To use a pedometer, you usually just clip it onto the waistband of your pants, tuck it inside your pocket or even slip it into a purse held close to your body, and then get moving.

How do you know which kind of tracker to get? Review these features to see what device may best suit your needs and interests.

  • Ease of use. Although some pedometers have more features and require more setup than do others, most are quite simple to use. Just clip it on and go, resetting the steps to zero each day when you start over.
  • Extras. The amount of information you want to collect may influence your choice of device. Some pedometers and most activity trackers calculate time spent in an activity, distance walked and even the number of calories you burn up while being active. Some activity trackers may also monitor your heart rate. Many activity trackers allow you to upload your data to computers or apps so that you can electronically track your progress.

    You might prefer a certain style of device, and a variety of styles are available. Some devices have a shorter battery life than others. Also, if you like to swim and want to wear an activity tracker in the water, make sure you get a waterproof device.

  • Accuracy. Most pedometers are generally accurate and reliable at counting basic steps. If you want a higher level of precision, however, you probably want an activity tracker.
  • Display. Look for a device with a display that you can read in different types of lighting, especially if you'll be using it both indoors and outdoors.
  • Price. The cost of a pedometer usually depends on how many features it offers. Pedometer price generally ranges from $10 to $50. Activity trackers can cost two to three times that amount, or even more than that for devices with more features.

About 70 percent of U.S. adults don't get the recommended amount of overall physical activity. For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.

In general, aim for about 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week. This should be at a moderate level, such as a fast-paced walk for no less than 10 minutes at a time. Aim to incorporate muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week. If you're not at that level of activity yet, keep it in mind as you think about your long-term goals.

Activity trackers and pedometers provide immediate feedback about your activity level. Thus, they can serve as a strong motivator to keep you moving. And they can help you track your progress over time.

Use these tips to integrate these tools into your activity routine:

  • Establish a baseline. When you first get your tracker, wear it throughout the day for about a week as you go about your routine activities at home or work. Add up the total number of steps for each day and then divide that total by seven. This gives you a baseline number of steps, or average, that can serve as a launching point for the step goals you set.
  • Set short-term step goals. Once you know how many steps you generally take on an average day, you can set some short-term activity goals. For instance, say you normally take about 2,000 steps a day while going about your normal routine.

    Set a short-term goal of adding about 1,000 steps a day for two weeks by incorporating a planned walking program into your schedule. You can either do it all at once or break your walking into 10-minute chunks of time to accommodate your schedule. When you meet a short-term goal, add a new one.

  • Set long-term step goals. Think about your overall fitness and activity goals. Your short-term goals are the building blocks to these long-term goals. A long-term goal may be walking 10,000 steps a day, or about 5 miles (8 kilometers), several times a week as part of your new daily routine. You may also want to set a goal of walking faster as your fitness level improves.
  • Track your progress. To see how you're doing, monitor your progress over time. Your tracker may or may not have a memory function to track your steps on a weekly or monthly basis.

    You can choose to use that feature or record your steps in a log of your own making. Or upload the information digitally to your computer or mobile device. Tracking your progress can help you see whether you're meeting your goals and when it may be time to set fresh goals.

If you have any health issues, have been inactive or are very overweight, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new fitness program. Your doctor can help you set realistic goals based on your fitness level and any health issues you may have.

Whatever your fitness goals, take them one step at a time. And enjoy the feeling of knowing that you're on the path to better health and fitness.

Jan. 19, 2017