Will a digital fitness monitor help me become more active?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’d like to be more active. Do you think a digital fitness monitor will help?

DEAR READER:

When digital fitness monitors (DFMs) became available several years ago, I was initially skeptical. I figured they would be the latest example of our fascination with electronic devices and that people would quickly tire of them.

Well, surveys show that some people have quickly tired of them and left them to collect dust in a drawer. However, many folks use them consistently and swear by them. Different strokes for different folks.

DFMs come in wearable styles such as wristbands, watches and pendants, or hand-held pieces you can clip onto a sleeve or slip into a pocket. They monitor one or more things that affect your physical fitness. They also nag you when you’ve fallen behind your personal goals — but it’s hard to get mad at them.

DFM features may be simple, tracking the number of steps you take or the calories you burn. Or they may be more sophisticated, capturing your heart rate and sleep patterns. Some have alarms that remind you to be more active, or announce that you’ve reached a goal. Most allow you to chart your progress online. Many let you virtually compete with family and friends.

But do DFMs make you more active? Research suggests they do. In an analysis of 26 studies, pedometer users added more than 2,000 steps per day to their baseline over 18 weeks. More important, they lowered their blood pressure and body mass index.

DFM prices vary widely. If you’re strapped for cash, buy a basic pedometer, which simply counts your steps.

Once you have a DFM, determine your baseline by wearing the pedometer for three days from the time you get up until bedtime. Divide the total steps taken by three, to get an idea of your average steps per day. Each week, add 500 steps per day until you reach your goal. Many experts recommend aiming for 10,000 steps a day.

With or without a DFM, it’s a good idea to add more walking to your routine. Dr. Richard Ginsburg, a psychologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests the following to sneak more steps into your day:

  • Get a dog. You’ll have to walk the animal at least once or twice a day.
  • Consider sports. Take up golf, for example, which involves a lot of walking.
  • Visit walking-only destinations. You could log a few miles at a museum, botanical garden or amusement park.
  • Window-shop at the mall. One lap around an average mall’s upper level ranges from a quarter to a half mile.

For people who really want to adopt a healthier lifestyle, digital fitness monitors make it easier to do. Some of my patients, and my friends, seem almost obsessed with them. One of my patients has chosen not just to average 10,000 steps a day — he has to beat that number every day. This is a healthy obsession to have!