Making the Most of Your Fitbit

Fitbits and other wearable sensors are great tools for getting in shape – if you use them correctly.

Close-up of the Fitbit Force on a man's wrist.

To maximize the health benefits of wearables like Fitbit, you should use the data to inform changes to your commute and fitness routine.

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Wearable sensors, such as the Fitbit, Nike FuelBand and Jawbone UP, have become a mainstay of the fitness world and a growing $330 million industry, according to NPD Group, which tracks digital fitness devices. While they offer users an easy way to track their movement, passively using these wearables won’t help boost your fitness or overall health. There are steps you need to take to ensure you make the most of them.

Making Sense of the Numbers

Here’s how they work: Slip the sensor into your pocket or around your wrist, and it will track your steps, distance traveled, calories burned and, depending on the brand, your sleep patterns. The sensor then uploads that information online or to an app, giving you the opportunity to track your progress over time.

Paying attention to how much you move is crucial for getting in shape. A 2009 study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that having a step goal and being able to immediately see results helped overweight and obese middle-aged women move more. Those given pedometers increased their daily step count by 36 percent in 12 weeks, which was enough to significantly lower their blood pressure. Meanwhile, the activity level of women not using pedometers didn't change.

"These devices have the ability to be true game changers when it comes to tackling the obesity epidemic," says Ted Vickey, an American Council on Exercise board member and former executive director of the White House Athletic Center under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

[Read: What Is Everybody Wearing? Fitness Tech Gadgets!]

However, just looking at the data isn’t enough to help you reach your fitness goals, says Vickey, who is also the founder and president of FitWell, a fitness management consulting company. You have to use the data to figure out where you can institute lifestyle changes.

"These devices provide a lot of data, but don’t give you a lot of information on what to do with it," he says. "It can be overwhelming."

The key to utilizing your device correctly is to figure out how to turn the jumble of data into actionable information, Vickey says, and that starts by getting a baseline. "Use it for a week, and just go about your normal routine," he says. "From there, look for opportunities to make small changes." These can include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking a little further from work or getting off at an earlier bus stop, all of which can add to your step count.

Then build on these small changes week by week, he says. One of the benefits of the devices is they show data in real time, so you can see how the small changes add up.

"You have the data," Vickey says, "and now this device can act as a bridge to help you make a change and visualize it."

[See: 8 Ways to Stay Healthy at Work.]

Aim for 10,000, But Start Slow

When you make a change, don't try to go from "zero to 100 overnight," Vickey says. These sensors come programmed with a goal of 10,000 steps per day, but if you’re just starting out, it’s unreasonable to aim for that, he says. Instead, slowly work your way up, increasing your daily step count by 10 percent each week until you hit 10,000, which is the number of daily steps recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General.

"If you try to do too much too fast, you can hurt yourself," Vickey says. "That could completely derail your progress."

One thing to pay attention to is the number of vigorous steps you take. In the Fitbit dashboard, you can track this under the section labeled "very active minutes;" with the FuelBand, it’s labeled "active time." The devices measure how quickly you're racking up steps to figure out how vigorous they are.

So if you’re currently taking 5,000 steps per day, instead of jumping right up to 10,000, aim to make those 5,000 steps vigorous ones, says Scott Danberg, director of fitness at Pritikin Longevity Center + Spa, a health and wellness resort in Miami, Florida that aims to help people lose weight.

And while 10,000 steps – roughly five miles – may seem far off, the goal isn’t to make them all vigorous steps, he says.

"It’s a tall order, unless you have a job where you’re on your feet and moving all day," Danberg says. However, the more "very active" minutes you have, the better, he adds. So it pays to hit the gym.

"You’re not going to get the 10,000 just by getting up and walking for 10 minutes," he says. "You’re going to have to be exercising."

[See: 8 Essentials To Stuff In Your Gym Bag.]

Change Starts With You

You likely won't change your activity level just because you're wearing a fitness tracker, Vickey points out. "But now that you have the data in front of you, it can act as a catalyst to cause the behavior change."

And use the data to look for ​trends – if you notice, for example, that you're routinely missing or surpassing your step goal, adjust it. But it's important to remember that a​ Fitbit isn’t a magic bullet for weight loss, Vickey says.

"These things are a tool to help you understand your behaviors," Vickey says. "People have been looking for the magic pill of exercise for years, but the science hasn’t changed – exercise more and eat less. Combine that with your Fitbit, and you’ll unleash the device’s true potential."

[See: 8 Health Technologies to Watch For.]