Five Ways You Can Use Your Smartwatch to Improve Your Fitness Level

So you have a smartwatch. And that smartwatch can keep you updated on your text messages, blare your favorite tunes into your headphones, even let you take phone calls without ever touching your actual phone. 

But it can also help you march closer to your fitness goals. In fact, these days, that’s a key selling point for most smartwatches. From heart rate tracking to step tracking to fancier touches like heart rate variability and running pace, today’s smartwatches track loads of fitness data. 

But how exactly do you use that data? That’s not always easy to figure out. Sometimes the data can be overwhelming (yes, your watch can track your stress levels!). Other times, it can be indecipherable, hidden beneath proprietary numbers that aren’t easy to comprehend. Data only works if you know what to do with it, and for all the tracking in smartwatches, they (and thus you) don’t always know what you’re supposed to do with the inside information. 

The truth: You don’t need to use it all. Instead, focus on key metrics, and use them to your advantage. Here are five ways you can get more from your smartwatch, no matter your fitness level. 

Step Tracking

Before smartwatches were devoting serious time to tracking everything about your fitness, they tracked steps. And from FitBit to your Apple Watch, most smartwatches still do this. It’s basic: For every step, you get credit on your smartwatch. 

Walking is a basic activity, so it’s hardly the same as, say, a 225-pound bench press for reps, or your best 500-meter row time. But it’s a perfect way to push your body to get started with more movement. Use that to your advantage and set a daily step goal. Program it into your smartwatch and aim to hit it every day. A good starting point: 5,000 steps a day. 

Hold yourself accountable to this number, and don’t miss it. Falling short at the end of the day? You owe yourself a 10-minute walk around the house. Mentally, you have to hit this goal. 

As you improve, you can up the regular movement. After three weeks of hitting your goal, add 500 steps. Keep doing this, and you’ll gradually find yourself moving more and more. This is best for beginners; if you’re an advanced user, you should focus on metrics other than steps. 

Heart Rate

Nearly every smartwatch tracks your pulse, and this is where the data gets fun. What’s your resting heart rate? What’s your average heart rate for a single day? How low does it go, and how high does it get on a given day? 

None of these things directly assess your fitness, but by monitoring them over the course of weeks and months, you can watch your fitness improve or decline. If your resting heart rate is going down, it’s a sign that you’re growing more fit. Is your max heart rate on your latest 5-mile run lower than it was a month ago? Then your fitness is improving, and your heart (and cardiovascular system) are gradually growing more efficient. 

Aim to track workouts, since most smartwatches let you tell them when you’re hitting a workout, and study that workout data. But understand that not every workout is going to ramp your heart rate into the stratosphere. Never let your smartwatch data dictate how you feel about a session. A bicep workout isn’t going to ramp your heart rate as high as a bodyweight interval session, but if you want big arms, your body will still love the workout. 

The key thing with using heart rate to analyze your fitness is that you shouldn’t let it dictate how you feel about a workout. Continue to judge your workout by how your body responds when the session is done. Don’t fall into the trap of turning every sweat session into one that has you driving your heart rate to your breaking point. Doing that will sabotage your muscle-building gains and turn every workout into a cardio session.

Heart Rate Variability

Hear rate variability, better known as HRV, is a newer metric that assesses the moment-to-moment difference in each of your individual heartbeats. There’s an ever-so-slight difference in the time between each beat. In general, a higher HRV tells you that your heart is more ready for a variety of fitness challenges. When it’s lower, that means your body might be tired, or overall, isn’t quite ready for a challenge. 

HRV is a valuable tool, but it’s critical to not assess it in the moment. It’s also highly personal. So sure, you can compare, say, the number of steps you took on any given day to the amount of steps a friend took and quickly judge who had a more productive fitness day. 

You can’t do that with HRV. Just because your HRV is lower doesn’t mean you’re in worse shape or can’t take on the same 5-mile run your friend is, because each body works differently. 

Never stress HRV in the moment. Instead, use it to assess readiness after you understand where your HRV should be. Is your own personal HRV typically around 100? If so, then on a day when it’s, say, 70, you might want to shy away from a hyper-aggressive workout. Is it 130 today? Take the opportunity to push yourself extra-hard in your workout. 

Sleep 

You know you need to rest, and today’s smartwatches, if you wear them to bed, can tell you how much you actually did rest. Did you sleep eight hours last night? Good stuff. Three hours? Well, you probably feel like you slept three hours and you’re struggling anyway. 

This is another chance to track your sleep trends. You won’t always be able to get the amount of sleep you want, because of stress and life and, well, a lot of factors. But are you consistently getting less sleep than you typically do? Are you getting more? 

Truth is, either is bad. The body recovers best when you keep your sleep consistent, falling asleep at the same time of day, waking up at the same time the next day, sleeping the same hours each night. If you sleep for 10 hours one day, 4 hours the next, you’re not letting your body uncover those rhythms. 

Seek consistency here and let your smartwatch tell you how you’re doing. And if you’re struggling with sleep, look at the trends and see where they’re going. If you’re getting less sleep, assess outside factors and see why you might be struggling. Maybe you’re stressed. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe you’ve had a few rough weeks at work. Try to change those outside factors. 

Keep a Log

The best way to use a smartwatch and its fitness data is to never let the watch dictate anything. Instead, use it to evaluate and think through how you’re doing. You’re in charge of your fitness, not the watch … even if the watch does try to tell you to walk more, stand more, and sleep more (or less). 

Take that approach and keep a daily log, either mentally or on paper.

  1. Write down how you’re feeling every morning or every night, whether you were sluggish or felt strong, if you were tired or mentally foggy all day.
  2. Write down your overall fitness data, whatever your watch offers, whether it’s steps or HRV or average heart rate.
  3. Write down how you felt during your workout as well as your watch data.
  4. Write down other little things too, like whether you had a fight with your boss or if you had a healthy dinner or a soda at lunch. 

Yes, this takes work, but it only takes a few minutes, and it’s truly the best way to use a smartwatch. If your smartwatch does the fitness assessment for you, it will be flawed, especially since these smartwatches alter their algorithms every few days. Take responsibility by doing your own tracking and assessing it over time. 

The more — and more consistently — you do this, the more you’ll get out of your smartwatch.

Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.

Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.

Fitness Director for Men’s Health Magazine and CSCS trainer -

Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., is the fitness director of Men's Health and a certified trainer with more than 10 years of training experience. He's logged training time with NFL and track athletes, and his current training regimen includes weight training, HIIT conditioning, and yoga. Before joining Men's Health in 2017, he served as a sports and tech columnist for the New York Daily News.