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Could a Fitness Tracker Boost Your Heart Health?

A Johns Hopkins cardiologist shares why these devices work to improve heart health for so many people, along with five easy ways to incorporate one into your daily life.

What the Experts Do
Pay Attention to the Numbers

“I have been using a fitness tracker for years,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Seth Martin, M.D., M.H.S. “It’s changed my habits, because I check the numbers every day.” When he started tracking, Martin typically hit 5,000 steps per day. “That was illuminating,” Martin says. “Sometimes it would be as low as 2,000.” Since he started checking his number at the end of the workday, he meets or exceeds his goal—10,000—almost every day. He holds walking meetings with colleagues or just takes a walk when possible, and he skips the elevator. If he’s short of his goal after work, he makes a concerted effort to get there by hitting the gym, tennis court or golf course, or by simply going for a walk outside. “Watch your numbers and take action,” he says. “It’s motivating. It works.”

You know exercise is heart smart and good for you. But do you really know how much physical activity you’re getting? And how can you get more, day in and day out, for your heart health? A fitness tracker may help.

Studies show that consistently using a fitness tracker—a device that tracks your movement, such as a traditional pedometer or other wearable device, or a smartphone app—can increase your steps per day by more than a mile, especially if you establish a heart-smart daily goal.

“Fitness trackers are a great tool for heart health,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Seth Martin, M.D., M.H.S. “Being more active and changing your habits is important, but it can be difficult. Tracking likely helps a lot of people when combined with a clear goal to shoot for.”

The Heart-Smart Power of a Fitness Tracker

Having an objective daily record can open people’s eyes to how little exercise they’re getting, Martin says, which can recalibrate their mindset and become an incentive. People find ways to incorporate more activity into their day, whether it’s dedicated walking or gym time, walking during meetings or personal calls, or simply taking the stairs instead of an elevator.

“It gives people information and empowers them to start making changes for heart health,” Martin says. “And often, their activity level was not something they were paying attention to before they started tracking.”

Fitness Trackers: Where to Start, How to Stick with It

Try a few pedometers, smartphone tracking apps or wearable devices, until you find one that’s comfortable for you and your budget, Martin suggests. Next steps once you’ve made a match:

  1. Use the tracker consistently, every day.
  2. Set a goal. The most common figure is 10,000 steps per day, but check with your doctor. If that is unrealistic or unhealthy, he or she can suggest an individualized plan, such as doubling your 2,000 steps to 4,000.
  3. Find activities you enjoy that also fit into your daily life and can be sustained over the long-term.
  4. Recruit friends and family to use trackers as well. It can create a social support network and even foster a sense of competition.
  5. Be accountable. Check your numbers every day, and share them with your doctor at your next appointment.

Follow those five tips, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier lifestyle—and a healthier heart.

The Future of Fitness Trackers

Be ready, too, as doctors learn and introduce even better ways to use these devices. In a recent study, Martin and his Johns Hopkins colleagues tested an automated, real-time, personalized program that sent text messages to subjects based on data from their phone. Over the short term, this coaching system helped increase step counts by more than a mile a day.

Martin hopes to see a similar system become widely used. He also wants to test social media platforms, to build support and competition networks. “It hasn’t been studied, but we think it will work,” Martin says. “I think technology can be a very powerful tool to get people moving more.”

 

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