Use those shiny new devices and apps to look beyond steps and calories to overall health.

Did you get one of the latest fitness trackers as a gift for the holidays? If so, you’re joining a movement: technology research firm IDC forecast worldwide sales of more than 101 million fitness trackers in 2016 alone.

Before you set that new fitness goal, though, consider this: Most of the latest generation of trackers keep tabs on a lot of different aspects of your physical activity. So, while they can help you track your progress in shedding pounds or picking up your running pace, they also can give you some valuable insight into your body’s workings.

Add one or two other pieces of gear to that fitness monitor, and you’ll have a much more complete picture of your overall health that you can share with your doctor and use to shape a healthier lifestyle.

Here’s a sampling of what you can discover with your fitness tracker and an app or two on your smartphone.


The appeal of many multi-function fitness trackers is your regular workout – they’ll let you choose the type of activity (aerobics or strength training), start the clock, and then calculate your calorie burn. Where they might help even more is with their most basic function: Counting steps. Hitting the gym a couple of times a week or those weekend runs are great for your fitness, but so is maintaining a basic level of activity every day, and setting a goal for daily steps is a great way to switch to healthier habits, especially for those of us who spend our day sitting at a desk. Pretty much every device, from your fancy smart watch to an inexpensive step counter that slips into your pocket, will let you set a step goal and nudge you to meet it. It’s also one of the easiest fitness goals to hit –take the stairs instead of the escalator, or get off the bus a few blocks early and walk the rest of the way, and those steps start to add up. You don’t need anything fancy to do basic step counting: Omron’s tiny Alvita Wireless Activity Tracker is a little over an inch square, and uses Bluetooth to sync with a range of Android devices and iPhones.

Heart rate

Smart watches and wrist-worn fitness trackers these days usually have special LEDs and optical sensors on the back to monitor your heart rate. You might not even notice that feature, even though it helps some trackers do a better job of calculating your calories burned from activity. Watching for changes in your resting heart rate can help you gauge fitness improvements, while being able to set and track heart rate ranges is useful for interval training. Some people – whether because of age or other risk factors – use the function to make sure their workout doesn’t cause them to exceed a “maximum” set by their doctor. If you have a smart watch like the Apple Watch, you can set and track heart rate with a touch, and the data will go straight to a range of fitness and health apps; you’ll also find it on well-regarded multi-function fitness trackers like the Fitbit Charge 2.

Sleep quality

Most of us are only awake for two-thirds of the day. Those other eight hours, though, are just as important to your health and fitness: Too little sleep (or poor sleep) not only can make you feel out of sorts, it can make it harder to lose weight or keep active. That’s why several trackers, as well as some stand-along smartphone apps, were designed to help you figure out when to go to bed, when to wake up, and give you a picture of your sleep quality. You can invest $300 in some full-bore kits for sleep tracking, which might make sense if you have chronic sleep problems. But wrist-worn fitness trackers like the Misfit Shine 2 also can monitor sleep time and key sleep cycles, plus wake you up with an audible alarm or vibration. Sleep Cycle is one of several freemium apps that track sleep, in this case using the iPhone’s microphone to listen to sounds and movements from your nightstand (for Android users, you tuck the phone away at the top corner of the mattress and rely on the accelerometer).


For many people, the key to weight loss as well as better health is all about input, not output. There are dozens of food tracking websites and apps around; some of them are linked to fitness trackers like those from Fitbit; others, like LoseIt!, are free (with premium features for a fee). Whichever you choose, there’s no substitute for finding one with a good database, to take the tedium out of entering everything you eat (some also let you track your water intake to encourage you to keep hydrated). Developers know that’s the thing that keeps people from maintaining a food log, so companies like LoseIt! are beginning to offer you the option to take a photo of your plate, and the app will use image recognition to offer you a list of likely matches. You still have to enter details like portion size.


There’s hardly a fitness resolution that doesn’t include losing some weight. Fitbit and Withings both make attractive, digital bathroom scales that track your weight and approximate your body fat percentage, and then send that data to a fitness app through your home wireless network.

Blood pressure

For anyone who has one of the many risk factors for hypertension, keeping track of your blood pressure is an important metric for your overall fitness. There are two basic options for consumer BP monitors that are linked with smartphone apps: Ones that fit over the wrist, and those that have a cuff for the upper arm. The American Heart Association favors the latter as providing generally more accurate results, but wrist units tend to be more compact and a bit easier to use. Philips, which manufactures professional medical equipment, offers a one-piece consumer unit that fits on the upper arm; Omron, which also makes products for physician offices, sells a compact wrist unit.

This may sound like a lot of information – and it is, so it’s useful to consider connecting all your devices and data into one of several apps that serve as “hubs” for health and fitness. That also makes it easier to see the total picture and share it with your physician – and makes the most out of your time and investment in wearable technology.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock, LMproduction.