How to make the most of your smartwatch when exercising

Should you check your smartwatch after every set of push-ups, or is it better to ignore your statistics until the end of your workout? Should you pay more attention to the amount of fat your smartwatch says you have burned, or your calories?

Thanks to the huge range of affordable smartwatches available today, more Indians can find a quality tracker to enhance their workouts. However, there are just as many ways to use smartwatches in the gym as there are tech users, and not everyone is using their smartwatch the right way.

Pros and cons of smartwatch use in the gym

When used correctly, a smartwatch can be a goldmine of health information which captures the user’s progress over time, whether they exercise in a gym, their home, or the great outdoors. For users undergoing medical treatment or living with chronic conditions, smartwatches can help them stay active within safe limits and also send over their workout information to a healthcare provider or a personal trainer.

Whether you prefer a budget-friendly OnePlus device or Apple’s most premium offering, many smartwatches geared towards fitness enthusiasts now come with preset modes for jogging, running, Pilates, elliptical machines, dancing, karate, swimming, and more, to improve data accuracy and provide extra detailed workout breakdowns. For fitness enthusiasts who menstruate, smartwatches can help adjust their workouts throughout their cycle for optimal results. And even between intense routines or heart-pumping “super-sets,” your smartwatch can lead you through a guided breathing routine to help you recover before the next round.

But when used incorrectly, smartwatches can make workouts less effective or even put the wearer in danger. For example: becoming fixated on one statistic—such as the number of calories burned per session—may prevent the person from switching between high and low intensity exercises, and can strain muscles. Overly depending on a smartwatch to exercise may also cause the wearer to push beyond their limits and stop listening to their body’s cues, increasing their risk of injury or even death.

On a lighter note, some fitness enthusiasts find that having yet another screen to look at during the day doesn’t promote relaxation or spontaneity while exercising.

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Safety tips for smartwatch users

Never listen to music or take calls via your smartwatch when exercising alone outdoors or moving through traffic. Be alert and fully aware of your surroundings.

Even if your smartwatch has GPS functionality, do not explore unmapped trails or waterways in the wilderness unless you are with a professional guide.

The menstrual cycle tracker in your smartwatch should not be used as a contraceptive measure, even if it shows “safe” days during a cycle.

Your smartwatch strap should not itch, cause skin rashes, or result in redness/bruises.

So how do fitness enthusiasts make their smartwatches work for them, instead of the other way around?

Namrata Purohit, an entrepreneur, fitness expert, and partner at The Pilates Studio, who has trained celebrities such as actor Kareena Kapoor Khan, told The Hindu by email that smartwatches can make it fun to keep track of workouts but that the devices should not become a distraction.

A trained Stott Pilates instructor, Purohit said she enjoyed exercising with her Apple Watch in order to keep track of her workout timings and check if her weekly exercise goals were being met. However, she did not agree with using a smartwatch in the gym to focus only on the calories being burned.

“Different workouts have different goals and targets, calories being just one of them. So while it’s nice to keep a tab on calories burned it shouldn’t be the only thing one looks at,” Purohit said.

How does a smartwatch track your vitals?

Take off your smartwatch and flip it over. You may notice a blinking green light under the watch’s face. The smartwatch sends this green LED light through your skin in order to “see” the moving blood vessels while a sensor measures how your blood vessels change in volume. This process is called photoplethysmography, and the watch uses this data to calculate your heart rate.

Infrared light or other sensors in the watch are able to collect more stats, such as blood oxygen saturation, in a similar manner and combine these data points with your stored data such as your height, weight, and gender to give an estimate of your health condition or to track your breathing.

Accelerometers in the watch measure your changing speeds to keep track of your exercises. While a good quality smartwatch will be able to differentiate between you taking a jog or, for example, you zooming off on a motorbike, poor quality devices may count the latter activity as an exercise and produce flawed readings.

Expensive smartwatches may offer more readings such as body fat percentage or even blood pressure (which is still a nascent area where smartwatch sensors are concerned). Even so, you should still regularly visit a licensed doctor to check your health readings with more precise medical instruments.

For those who exercise in groups, Purohit explained how smartwatches can help everyone reach the end of their session.

“Some of us have our watches synced, that way we can challenge and motivate each other to complete our workout of the day. During a workout we try not to get distracted by anything, we simply turn [on] the exercise on our Apple Watch and get going,” she said.

But what happens when your smartwatch and your machine in the gym throw out different numbers? Purohit said that the smartwatch’s data is usually more accurate as it is customised to the user. She also pointed out that most modern cardio machines have the option of syncing stats or attaching a heart rate monitor, so fitness enthusiasts who need extra precise measurements can use this strategy instead.

Privacy tips for smartwatch users

Many smartwatches come with a mobile app to store or analyse your health information and exercise statistics. Before downloading, read about this app in the Google/Apple app marketplace to learn whether your sensitive information will be passed on to any external parties, and if it will be encrypted.

If you wish to use a smartwatch but worry about privacy, opt for models where you can use the device without syncing your email account, phone contacts, WhatsApp, etc.

While there might be a smartwatch for everyone who exercises, perhaps not everyone should be using a smartwatch when they exercise.

“For people who have their calls and messages synced and are easily distracted by a watch, I prefer not having it on. It’s also not good to keep looking at the watch just to see how much time has passed or over-monitor everything. One has to find the right balance,” Purohit said.

Most smartwatches available today come with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode or ‘Focus’ mode to limit notifications as well as soften bright lights and sounds. Once enabled or customised, these modes should help fitness enthusiasts get immersed in their workouts—minus the work email reminders or WhatsApp forwards from the family group chat.

With an extensive range of smartwatch wallpapers and screen customisation options, fitness enthusiasts can also make their clocks less visible or keep them completely hidden until they reach the end of their workout.

Shopping tips for smartwatch users

Before investing in a new smartwatch, research the product to make sure it covers all the sports and exercises you wish to track. Also read the user reviews in advance.

Choose functionality over brand names. An expensive smartwatch may offer far more features than you will ever need, in exchange for shorter battery life.

Take note of water resistance ratings before buying a smartwatch.

Most entry-level devices do not come with calling/texting capabilities, cameras, social media apps, or GPS. These might be a good choice for first time smartwatch users or adolescents.

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