I was delighted when I heard the beep – it was only lunchtime, and according to my fitness tracker, I had already finished my exercise for the day. But, while I had taken 10,000 steps, I had barely broken a sweat.
Millions of people around the world today use fitness trackers to measure their daily activity. But while the devices are designed to help us improve our health, is there a danger that the captured data allows us to kid ourselves that incidental exercise is enough to stay fit?
Tiffiny Hall is a trainer and author of the health and exercise book You Beauty!. She says that there is a big difference between power walking 10,000 steps in one go and completing them incidentally throughout the day.
“No one improves their fitness by walking to the bus stop,” she says. “If we’re talking about fitness then we need to increase the heart rate. Incidental exercise won’t elevate your heart rate.”
If you are exercising with an elevated heart rate then you should be slightly out of breath and sweating. “If you are chatting to a friend then you are not pushing yourself hard enough,” says Hall.
While most fitness trackers include a heart rate monitor, there is confusion about what the statistics actually mean. A common mistake is that the higher the BPM (beats per minute) the better.
But according to the Victoria state government’s Better Health Channel, we should be aiming to exercise between 50 and 70 per cent of our maximum heart range, or 70 to 80 per cent when we are doing vigorous or high-intensity exercise.
Your maximum heart range can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220. For me, it’s 182 (220 BPM – 38 years).
This means that to get the most benefit from exercise, I should aim for 91 to 127 beats per minute for moderate exercise and 127 to 146 beats per minute for vigorous exercise. Am I achieving that on a stroll to the train station? Probably not.
Incidental exercise shouldn’t be discounted, though. Hall says that rather than being a regime in itself, incidental exercise should be part of an active lifestyle.
“You do need to balance incidental movement with exercise that pushes your muscles to work in some way, be it through resistance training or some sort of cardio. After all, your muscles are the fat factories: they need to work to burn fat,” she says.
So when it is part of an active lifestyle, incidental exercise can boost your fitness.
According to Australia’s Heart Foundation, we should all aim to be more active in our day-to-day lives as well as taking exercise. Doing just 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day can help. It suggests standing where possible (during meetings or while on the telephone), using the stairs instead of the lift and getting of the couch to change the TV channel rather than using the remote.
Hall notes that taking the active option whenever possible will create a “cumulative effect”. “You will burn energy and you will see improvements in weightloss and fitness,” she says.
Sydney GP Dr Dasha Fielder agrees we shouldn’t rely on incidental exercise to stay fit. “In general, I recommend moderate to high-intensity exercise focusing on 30 minutes of cardiovascular training such as walking, running, jogging or dancing a day,” she says.
But while fitness trackers might overplay the benefits of incidental exercise, Dr Fielder thinks that they are a great way to measure activity and stay motivated.
“Regardless of your fitness levels, weight, age, likes and dislikes, fitness trackers are a very useful way to measure how active you are. You can then try to increase your level of activity every day or at least maintain it,” she explains. “I recommend them to all of my patients.”
Fitness trackers use our daily steps – whether they are taken on a brisk power walk or on your daily commute – to calculate how many kilojoules have been burned. But is it really an accurate measure? Dr Fielder doesn’t think so.
“The only way a person can gain an accurate measurement of the kilojoules they have burned is through an indirect calorimetry, which analyses your oxygen consumption using a face mask,” she says.
However, while Dr Fielder notes that fitness trackers don’t accurately track how many kilojoules you have burned, she also says it isn’t useful to fixate on such things. “People shouldn’t focus on their kilojoule reading,” she says, explaining that this could lead to over eating.
“Fitness trackers can encourage people to tell themselves that they can eat more if they have burnt a lot of kilojoules, which isn’t the case.
“A fitness tracker won’t provide you with a full picture of your lifestyle including the type of food you’re eating, smoking or alcohol consumption.”
Dr Fielder also notes that each type of food is metabolised differently. “What is important is the source of the kilojoules – not counting them,” she explains.
On the whole, though, Dr Fielder concedes that incidental exercise is better than no exercise at all.
“For many people with busy lifestyles, life has become a race; exercise is seen as an added chore that for many simply takes the last priority,” she says. “I think the key message is that we need to move more.”
Lindsey Black has worked as a personal trainer for 23 years. She thinks fitness trackers can be a huge benefit to already active people who are looking to improve their fitness level.
“Being able to see all the data from workouts – duration, pace distance and intensity – can motivate some people to keep building on what they have already achieved,” she explains.
When it comes to intensity, Black says that an hour or so of “hard core” exercise will always trump incidental exercise. However, in an age where obesity rates climbing, Black notes that being active – whatever the level – trumps being sedentary. “Any exercise is better than no exercise,” she says.