What’s the Best Activity Tracker for Your Clients?

by Amanda Vogel, MA on Mar 21, 2016

Fitness Technology

To figure that out, you have to match key features with people's specific goals.

As a fitness expert, you’ve likely had at least a couple, if not dozens, of fitness clients/participants ask you about activity trackers: how they work, which ones are best, what features to look for. Do you feel 100% confident answering these questions? You’re not alone if you say no.

Of the fitness pros recently surveyed by the American Council on Exercise, 72% reported that their clients consistently asked for insight and feedback about tracking devices. However, only 51% of respondents felt prepared to answer those questions (ACE 2016).

Fortunately, recommending the right tracker to a client or a class participant is primarily a matter of understanding people’s goals and preferences. It’s okay if you can’t recite every detail about every tracker on the market. Whew!

“Since the majority of activity trackers offer similar features, making a selection is often more about aesthetics and comfort,” advises Mike Z. Robinson, 2015 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and owner of MZR Fitness in San Luis Obispo, California. For example, one client might prefer to track the basics, like steps taken, with an unobtrusive, bracelet-like device (e.g., Jawbone® or some Fitbit® models). Another person might prefer a smartwatch capable of tracking activity, displaying messages, pushing notifications and more (e.g., Apple Watch, Basis Peak™, Fitbit Surge™).

When you’re thinking about tracker feedback, consider which data is most likely to motivate individual clients and hold them accountable. Understanding the common features in many wearable activity trackers will help you confidently point clients to the devices most likely to help them reach their fitness goals.

Common Features in 
Wearable Activity Trackers

The major metrics in today’s wearable activity trackers include steps; calories and heart rate (continuous and active); and 
performance parameters such as duration, distance and pace. Here’s how they help specific clients.

What’s Tracked: Steps

Good for clients who . . . could gain better insight into how much they move around each day (or how much they don’t).

The “steps taken” metric is one of the top bits of info Justin Seedman looks at with his clients. “By using this technology, clients become well aware of their low activity level,” says Seedman, a personal trainer, health coach and owner of JustinFit LLC in Broward County, Florida. “I find the steps-per-day metric is especially helpful when I’m working with clients who have sedentary jobs and have a goal to be more active,” he notes. “Together we look at the data from the tracker, create goals and examine where they can increase activity levels.”

Bear in mind that trackers tend to provide information about quantity but not necessarily quality of steps. For this reason, you might not have a clear picture of whether you’re looking at steps accumulated on a stroll through the mall plus puttering around the house, or steps taken during a brisk walk to work plus an afternoon jog. Size up steps in conjunction with variables such as pace, calories (see below) and/or workout metrics. Some devices—like the Fitbit Surge with its “floors climbed” metric—shed more light on step intensity.

Seedman likes to make the step-count metric more meaningful. “I challenge clients by having them compete against other clients, their family members, co-workers and myself,” he remarks. Since he recommends one brand of tracker to all his clients, most people can join and view challenges within the tracker’s companion app (see sidebar). Once enrolled in a challenge within the app, clients can check other participants’ rank on a leaderboard. “This increases the competitive nature of the challenge,” observes Seedman.

What’s Tracked: Calories

Good for clients who . . . want to lose weight and need to see firsthand how calories 
in and calories out affect weight loss goals.

You could use this metric to evaluate how daily calorie burn changes, or doesn’t, from one day or week to the next. Devices that track workout performance will also display how many calories a client burns during a dedicated workout, such as a cycling class, an outdoor run or a training session.

Combining this data with other variables will give you a good read on how much clients move around every day—
and how intensely. “The metrics I focus on with clients the most are how many calories they have burned, how many steps they’ve taken and how long they were in an active zone,” says Robinson, who finds that these metrics provide a more accurate picture of clients’ activity levels on any given day.

Since activity trackers illuminate what’s happening with calories out, but not calories in , you might suggest to clients who are interested in losing weight that they use a food-logging app, such as MyFitnessPal. Some tracker companion apps also include a food log.

What’s Tracked: Heart Rate

Good for clients who . . . wish to ensure appropriate exercise intensity, or for athletic clients who want to objectively gauge one workout against another to improve performance.

Some activity trackers continuously measure heart rate, or measure it at certain intervals, both of which can be beneficial for accumulating basic health data over time.

Additionally, some devices measure active heart rate during a workout. This metric allows exercisers to check their heart rate on the spot and adjust intensity, if needed, to ensure adequate effort or avoid overtraining. Seedman looks at various heart rate parameters with a few of his clients. “We monitor maximum, average, recovery time and resting heart rates,” he notes.

What’s Tracked: 
Duration, Distance, Pace

Good for clients who . . . are beginners or advanced and would like metrics about how long, fast and/or intensely they exercised in a given workout. By enabling them to compare measurable outcomes, these measurements also help athletes who are seeking to sustain or improve performance.

Access to workout metrics can tell you if a client is, in fact, staying consistent with exercise. “It used to be that clients could say they did a lot of activity on ‘off days’ from training sessions,” recalls Robinson. “I had to take their word for it. But activity trackers provide another way of holding clients accountable and advancing clients’ performance and/or fitness levels.”

Looking at workout data, you might find evidence that your clients are ready to progress. For example, if you notice they’re steadily improving their distance and pace on short weekend runs, you could encourage them to extend exercise duration slightly.

Says Robinson, “I might tell a client: ‘Your daily activity goal for exercise has been 30 minutes for a month now. Let’s bump it up to a minimum of 40 minutes for the next four weeks.’ Ideally, I would want that client to be working out between 45 and 60 minutes, but giving just a few minutes more than the previous goal makes it more attainable.”

Tracking a Healthier Lifestyle

The above variables are common to many trackers, but other features are available as well. Some devices monitor sleep, information that can be handy for helping clients analyze why they might feel more energetic on certain days compared with other days.

Several devices act as a “watchdog” for inactivity. For example, Apple Watch tracks sitting behavior, encouraging users to get up and move around for at least 1 minute in 12 different hours throughout the day. Using this feature, clients quickly develop a picture of how much they sit during the day and how to counteract prolonged sitting.

Tracker features are always being updated, but the intention remains the same: to help people move more, perform better and live healthier lives. “When I meet with clients,” declares Robinson, “we look at data from their trackers (whichever one they might have) . . . to see where we can makes changes for them to be more productive throughout the day.”

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About the Author

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Amanda Vogel, MA human kinetics, is the owner of ActiveVoice.ca, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. She’s a Hootsuite-certified social media consultant for fitness brands and public figures and a Fitness Technology Spokesperson for IDEA. Specializing in group fitness, Amanda holds indoor cycling certifications from Schwinn and Keiser. In addition to blogging at FitnessTestDrive.com about fit tech, workout gear and exercise clothes, she writes for popular magazines, including IDEA Fitness Journal, ACE Certified, Best Health and Reader’s Digest. Find her on social: @amandavogel on Twitter and @amandavogelfitness on Instagram.