Watch what matters with your tracking devices.

All the wearable and mobile technology out there can help you get a great 360-degree picture of your fitness. It also can easily become overwhelming to sort through all those data sets and graphs and figure out what information is going to help you the most.

So, just because you can track all those parameters doesn’t mean you should. The data you actively track or review really depends on your top goals and your strategy to reach each of them. We all have different, individual physiologies related to everything from gender to genetics that can affect a lot of the data we track. Plus, it’s easy for a device to lure you into watching a number that’s in the middle of the display but that may not be as important to your goal as something else that might be a couple clicks away.

Match your goal to the right tech strategy

If your goal is to drop pounds, for example, your fitness pro will probably recommend a strategy that focuses less on what the scale reads, and more on what makes up each pound. It’s more important that you focus on creating a downward trend line for your body fat percentage, rather than tracking your overall weight. That’s because the lean muscle you’re after is denser than the fat you don’t want.

Notice that the focus in this case is on the direction and rate of decline, not the specific number.

This is because the most common consumer technology for measuring body fat relies on passing a tiny electric current through your body—a method called bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA). Because fat doesn’t conduct electricity like the rest of your body, the more fat you have, the less electricity passes through your body. The difference between what your scale or handheld meter sends into your body and what it measures coming out gets plugged into a formula to give you a body fat percentage readout.

Dig deeper into the formula

The problem is that formula. There are a lot of factors at work, and it’s hard to make a consumer device that can account for all of them. Research published by the National Institutes of Health has shown that an individual body fat measurement can be affected by a wide range of things, not just age and gender (which most devices can handle) but also the time of your last meal, whether or not you’re properly hydrated, recent activity, or menstruation. So while BIA can be very precise in the lab where all those factors can be considered, a consumer device is bound to have some margin of error.

The good news is that if you keep other factors constant, BIA technology is pretty good about tracking your progress accurately, even if the actual body fat percentage reading it provides isn’t accurate. So watch that trend line!

If your goal is improved stamina and fitness, your strategy may be to lower your resting heart rate. That’s something that’s very easy to track these days with many wrist-mounted devices. That resting heart rate also serves as the starting point for calculating your target and maximum heart rates for training purposes.

Examine the variables that impact the data

If you do track your resting pulse, though, you’ll probably notice that it can vary a lot depending on the time of day, your level of stress, or that latte you had an hour ago. Lack of sleep or taking blood pressure medication can also affect it. A trained athlete with a resting rate of 58 is probably in great shape; a weekend warrior with the same reading might need to consult a doctor. So while improving your resting rate is probably a good thing, picking the right target number on your own can be tough.

That’s why your fitness pro might suggest a more useful gauge of cardio fitness with a definite target: your recovery heart rate. In other words, how rapidly does your heart rate come down after pushing yourself aerobically? A lot of research in the past 15 years has shown that people with slower recovery rates are less healthy than those who recover quickly. Scientists also have come up with some pretty standard targets for healthy recovery heart rates—a drop of between 21 and 23 beats per minute within a minute after you stop exercise.

Tech is a tool; results depend on you

Finally, remember that technology alone won’t accomplish your goals; according to a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people who used a tracker didn’t appear to lose more weight than people without one. So an important part of your strategy has to be motivation—or, perhaps, avoiding demotivation.

For example, when my winter hibernation catches up with me, I tend to be able to drop a few pounds pretty quickly. My wife struggles to shave off just one or two. Even though I try not to say too much about how I’m doing, it can be pretty disheartening if one partner is just blowing through milestones while the other feels stuck.

We have a technology solution for that. We use separate scales, so there’s no chance of any “data leakage,” at least not from the technology!

Photo credit: 123RF, Karel Joseph Noppe Brooks