A fitness tracker does more than just track steps and burned calories — here's how I learned to get the most out of mine

A fitness tracker does more than just track steps and burned calories — here's how I learned to get the most out of mine

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  • Fitness trackers are a powerful tool for anyone looking to train and improve their overall fitness but so often they're used to just count steps or randomly track activities without putting that data to use.
  • Many popular fitness trackers do even more than just that standard tracking, too, offering wearers a wide range of capabilities such as sleep tracking, offline map support, and coaching programs.

Updated on 7/7/2020 by Rick Stella: Added links to relevant Insider coverage, updated non-fitness features of the Garmin Forerunner 945, added more to the section on how to get the most out of your fitness tracker, and updated the pricing, links, and formatting throughout.

Adjusting to having more time on your hands takes many forms. Some may finally get through that stack of books they've wanted to read while others may take the time to bake or learn a new hobby. Perhaps the rest and relaxation of doing nothing is preferred (and that's OK, too).

For me, I've taken to learning the ins and outs of my fitness trackers and, more specifically, how I can truly put everything it offers to use.

I've long worn a fitness tracker as a daily watch, using it to record my bike rides, hikes, or any other sort of outdoor physical activity. But what I found myself primarily using it for was to tell time — which doesn't do much for getting the most out of the wearable or myself.


So, I decided to change that. The two fitness trackers I wear most often are the Garmin Forerunner 945 and the Suunto 9 Baro. But instead of just paying more attention to the stats they already churn out, I started at square one with both. This meant first entering my age, weight, and other fitness data into each watch's companion app to create my new profile.

Now, as they track my workouts, steps, and flights of stairs climbed, the amassed data isn't just dumped into a general well of information — I instead have somewhat of an accurate representation of my daily activity. I've also taken to syncing my heart rate monitors, bike cadence sensors, and Wahoo Smart Trainer to the watches via Ant+ capability.

But I understand these sport watches aren't designed strictly for tracking my workouts and to get the most out of them, I'd need to know them as well as they intended to know me. To do this, I decided to dig into what else they offer, including everything from sleep-tracking and offline map support to music compatibility and expert coaching.


A fitness tracker does more than just track steps and burned calories — here's how I learned to get the most out of mine

An in-depth coaching platform

For Garmin, the Forerunner 945 is one of its top-of-the-line sport watches, intended for use for everything from marathon training to triathlons. What I learned when I spoke with Garmin product manager, Joe Heikes, is that the watch doubles as both a tracker and coach.


Garmin offers three training plans developed by elite running coaches that can help me specifically prep for a 5k, 10k, or half-marathon. By using Garmin's own algorithms, the plan adapts to the training I complete and how I register I'm feeling after sessions. It then uses that to let me know my training status and the effect of my runs, how much rest I need, and when I can train again.

This feature isn't just useful for race training but can be vitally important to casual runners, too. Understanding the way training affects you, as well as how much rest you need between sessions, is a crucial aspect of anyone's physical fitness — and Garmin wanted to be sure advanced features like this were available to both competing athletes and ordinary wearers.

Prioritizing rest and relaxation

I knew my fitness tracker would help me track my training but I didn't know it could also monitor my energy, sleep, and stress. Garmin's Body Battery rating scores me 0-100 each day using my heart rate and blood oxygen data that it collects via a back-of-the-watch sensor. This rating allows me to see if I'm getting enough rest, whether I should prioritize recovery, and how well I'm doing during each training session.

Heart rate variability is a good indicator of stress level, too. If the watch detects my heart rate is higher than it should be, it directs me to breathing exercises to help me calm down. The watch uses sensors plus activity tracking to tell me how long a break I need to recover before my next workout.

The blood oxygen sensor has other applications, too. When I'm adventuring at altitude, I can use it to make sure I'm not ascending too fast. And while Garmin doesn't have medical applications, low blood oxygen levels on the watch could be a nudge to check in with a doctor if I'm not feeling 100%.


A world of maps on my wrist

Another feature that's indispensable to me is the watch's compatibility with onboard maps. The Forerunner offers neighborhood street-level detailed maps, so if I miss a turn on my hike, walk, run or ride, I can figure out where I am.

The watch even has a trackback feature that generates a retrace of my route so I can find my way back to a trailhead or cross-street. The mode also lets me choose a back-to-start option that shows me the shortest route home from my current position.

Make use of the non-fitness features, too

The Forerunner 945 offers plenty of other features that aren't just fitness-related, too. A personal favorite is how it's able to store and stream up to 1000 songs straight to my Bluetooth earbuds. This means I can leave my phone at home and take a walk, run, or ride and decompress from the online sensory overload with music in my ears. The watch even syncs with Spotify, too.

The Forerunner 945 also has Garmin Pay. This allows you to load your credit card info into Garmin Connect for contactless payment via card readers at the grocery store. The service also lets you easily transfer funds.

One of the things I'm often asked about when I head out to run or bike is to keep in contact should I need help. Thankfully, the 945 also has safety and tracking features. This lets me add up to three emergency contacts and if the watch thinks I've been in an accident, it automatically triggers an alert to them. I can override the alert if I'm not too injured to tend to myself and I'm even able to trigger an SOS to my contacts manually.



A fitness tracker does more than just track steps and burned calories — here's how I learned to get the most out of mine

The 9 Baro goes everywhere

Suunto also makes high-end GPS sports watches, and my go-to's been the Suunto 9 Baro, an activity tracker that features many of the same fitness features as the 945. It documents my specific training stats, steps I've taken each day, and any calories burned, and offers tracking for hiking, biking, and swimming.

For someone as active as I am, I really appreciate its powerful battery. After loading my favorite activities onto the watch from Suunto's app — there are 80 to choose from — I was able to track up to 120 hours of activity without a recharge. This means that I could venture out on a multi-day backpacking trip and not have to worry about a dead watch on the trek back home.

Navigating the 9 Baro is intuitive, too. Its touch screen makes moving through menus quick and easy, including the icon for 24/7 activity tracking that also logs my rest and makes recommendations for recovery.

Setting goals not just for when I'm awake

One of the features I wasn't making near as much use of is the 9 Baro's sleep tracking. This doesn't just spit out how many hours I have my head on my pillow each night but rather it documents the quality of my rest. This includes how much time I spend in various stages of deep sleep compared to how long I toss and turn or make trips to the bathroom.


I'm able to then access that data each day to get an idea of my sleep profile, and if there's anything I can do to improve my habits. I can even set when I want to get to sleep each night to hit my desired hours of nightly rest, too.

The watch also helps me set activity-specific goals when I'm awake, as well. Some weeks, my goals are a certain number of steps or hours of activity at a certain threshold, while other weeks I choose to focus on doing something more calming like yoga. Becoming reacclimated with my fitness tracker has shown me the importance of creating a dynamic fitness routine so as to better improve my overall health.

A big aspect of that is understanding the recovery reading the watch formulates for me after each session. This gives me a window into what I should expect not just from my athletic performance each week but also what activities I should plan and if I'm run down and need a rest.

This was where introducing something like yoga or meditation into my routine was important — and the 9 Baro helped me realize that. As I spend more time at home, it became apparent to include routines like these to help me mentally get through the day.

Getting the most out of your fitness tracker

Though this journey of re-familiarizing myself with the 945 and 9 Baro is personal to my own experiences, the overall goal is easily achievable by anyone — regardless of the tracker you own. The goal is to get beyond just tracking your steps or flights of stairs climbed. Of course, some trackers only offer this functionality but there's still an opportunity to use even that set of data to your advantage.


Create goals you want to accomplish each day and week, either via the watch's own goal-setting capability or by the old-fashioned method of pen and paper. Start small and work your way up, making note of advancements or improvements along the way.

Don't be discouraged if you aren't fully hitting the goals you've set, or you aren't seeing as much of a change as you expected. Altering your relationship with your fitness tracker won't always produce dramatic changes overnight. It can, however, provide you the opportunity to better understand your daily, weekly, and monthly activity. But be kind to yourself along the way — it is a learning experience, after all.

Fitness trackers are far too powerful to function solely as something that tells time but getting the most out of one isn't as easy as just strapping it on. With some dedication to figuring out how the data it tracks is beneficial to your own personal fitness goals, you're able to give it more of a role in your daily routine than just being an expensive wristwatch or a permanent resident of your kitchen's junk drawer.