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Fitness Trackers – how good are they for Nordic walking?

So many of our walkers are using fitness tracking devices now that I thought it might be helpful to review their features and usefulness for Nordic walking.

There are a veritable cornucopia of options – from the humble pedometer to smart phones to wearables – plus a few others besides.  They offer a slew of benefits to help us improve our activity, fitness, sleep, weight and general health.  Are they worth the investment and how can we, as Nordic walkers, benefit from them?  Here are a few of the options:

Pedometers

The key purpose of a pedometer is to measure how many steps you take.  Step count is a simple concept but one which is used by the World Health Organisation, UK, American and Australian governments to encourage us to become more active and develop a lifelong health habit.  You can set pedometers to your personal stride length and in this way you can also reasonably accurately determine how far you’ve walked.  Some of the more sophisticated ones (such as the Omron 111) give calories burned as well.

I like pedometers.  The fact that they are really only trying to measure one thing means that I am less likely to get distracted by other variables.  They are also particularly well suited for Nordic walking given that their purpose is to measure step count – and we take plenty of steps.  In an average fitness class we clock over half the recommended daily total.

The key is to be consistent and walk 10,000 every day.  In this way you are building activity into your life and are more likely to find opportunities to be active throughout the day rather than doing one mega workout at the beginning or end of the day.

They are not interactive in their own right but you can join online forums and complete ‘virtual walks’.  I’ve always been attracted to the Walking World site probably because one of its virtual walks is the Cotswolds Way, a National Trail which some of you may remember I walked a couple of years ago in four marathon days.  I now know that I would have walked 174,436 steps to complete that route – clocking over 43,000 steps per day!

Smartphones

You can download a variety of apps onto your smartphone to record steps, calories, distance, routes, food consumed etc, etc.  Probably the most popular is Map My Walk which I know many of you use.  You can download the data and use their interactive map to log routes.  Plus you can share the information with others which is great for motivation.  The apps are often free – at least for the basic version – and the beauty for us Nordic walkers is that we always have our phones with us when we go out for a walk.  It is therefore very easy for us to incorporate a smartphone fitness app into our walking routine.

A couple of personal gripes:  First, mine doesn’t always measure my distance accurately.  Secondly, I’ve found some of the apps – and Map My Walk in particular – to be battery thirsty.  This doesn’t matter if I am just going for an hour long walk but it is extremely annoying if I’m out for the whole day – a dead mobile is the last thing I need.  It is a major stumbling block for me and so I tend now not to use my phone as a fitness tracker.

Wrist worn fitness trackers

There has been a huge surge in the popularity of wrist worn fitness trackers.  By far the most popular with you guys is the Fitbit.  Fitness wrist trackers are not a new concept.  I bought my first fitness tracker about 10 years ago.  It was the Garmin Forerunner 305 and I loved it.  It used GPS to record distance and elevation. I could measure my average and top speed.  It clocked my calories and, if I wore the monitor, my heart rate.  So things have not advanced radically – they are just presented in a more user friendly way and have perhaps become more stylish.   Some wearables also include a sleep monitoring function.  Whilst this is not yet sophisticated enough to be able to measure brain wave activity and other subtle biometric indicators of sleep, it is a pretty interesting to know how long you’ve slept for and how many times you woke up throughout the night.

The thing I particularly like about some of the wrist fitness trackers (such as the Fitbit Surge and Charge HR) is their built-in heart rate monitoring function.  Gone is the need to strap a heart rate monitor round your chest.  These clever watches can track it from your wrist.  If used effectively, it is a brilliant tool, both to measure fitness and increase it.  The only issue at the moment (and I only have the Fitbit to go by here) is that, whilst is records your heart rate data, it doesn’t yet analyse it for you and tell you what to do with the information – how to improve. No doubt this facility will be introduced soon.

From a Nordic walking point of view, other than the heart rate wearables, wrist worn trackers offer a similar sort of package to the smartphone apps.  The difference is that they are both more accurate (bar one major flaw) and more costly.  My latest purchase set me back £100.  The area where they seem to fall short is on step count.  The wrist trackers can currently give false positives and tell you that you’ve walked 10,000 steps when you have in fact only been painting the bedroom. 

A big advantage is that, because they double up as a watch, we are more likely to wear them constantly.  This in turn enables us to get a better understanding of our activity and fitness levels on a daily basis and to monitor the changes over a period of time.  With goal setting; activity summaries nicely presented in graphics; and the ability to share data with friends it becomes a fun and motivating way of improving fitness.  A word of caution though – it can take over your life and become obsessive!  The American comedian David Sedaris has the most entertaining story about the Fitbit which you may still be able to catch on iplayer – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b064418w. It is well worth a listen.

What fitness tracking features are good for Nordic walking?

Here are the things that I like to know when I go Nordic walking:

  • The distance I’ve covered (It has to be GPS tracked for me as I like it to be accurate);
  • The elevation, particularly if I’m doing lots of hill walking (and you know how much I like hills!);
  • My speed – both top speed and average walking speed – so there needs to be a pause facility so that any time I spend stationary isn’t included in my average speed;
  • The route that I’ve walked – with the facility to download this onto my computer and share with others;
  • Calories burned;
  • Heart rate stats;
  • Steps walked.

I still find that the Garmin range of fitness trackers suits my needs very well (although I’m looking forward to using the Fitbit Charge HR).  I have a couple from the Forerunner range plus the Oregon.  I know the latter is utterly brilliant but I haven’t yet learned how to use it properly – I need to book onto a course.  Maybe this is a problem common to all the smart new technology.  They have so many functions and can give me masses of data.  The questions I ask myself are: do I need them and will I use them?  The pedometer, for all it’s simplicity, still gives me a ridiculous sense of satisfaction when I see that little person jumping up and down, telling me that I’ve reached my 10,000 step target.

Vicky