By its nature travel gets people out into the world doing things they rarely do at home, so for folks locked into the bed-commute-office-commute-bed grind, a trip can feel liberating—but also physically challenging. If you’re feeling a little worn out during a trip, how do you know whether it’s a “good” tired due to activity, or a “bad” tired due to jet lag or too much time jammed into an airplane seat? Enter the fitness tracker, the ubiquitous 21st-century gauge of what we are—and are not—doing with our bodies.
A fitness tracker such as the Fitbit Blaze or Garmin Vivofit can take some guesswork out of life on the road. Did you really catch any Zs on the plane? When it feels like you haven’t slept in a week, is that really the case? How many flights of stairs did you climb, and does it count as a workout? A fitness tracker can tell you all this and more.
How to Use a Fitness Tracker When You Travel
While many people use activity trackers all the time, in an informal survey of friends I found that those who travel the most lean most heavily on a fitness tracker to help them stay healthy, in shape, and on track. Here are some of the ways a fitness tracker can benefit any traveler.
Protect Yourself from Getting Sick
Perhaps the clearest benefit of using a fitness tracker is to have a general sense of how much you’re sleeping as well as how much exercise you’re getting, and then to use the data to make sure you’re not pushing so hard that you become vulnerable to illness and exhaustion. This can help you stay healthy, productive, and confident on the road.
Find Out How “Healthy” Your Trip Is
Some vacations are much more sedentary than you might think. For example, a beach vacation where you spend your days outdoors and playing in the ocean seems like it would be “better for you” than a visit to a big city, but that isn’t necessarily borne out by data. In fact, a study by the company behind the now-defunct Jawbone tracker found that people took fewer steps when traveling to beach locations—they did get more sleep, however.+
Your chosen destination matters as well; visitors to Delhi take around 7,000 steps per day, according to the study, while visitors to Rome take over twice that many at 15,000 per day.
Measure Your Distance Walked
Travel often requires walking distances that your daily life may not. If you’ve got an office job in the suburbs, for example, it’s pretty easy to walk only a few hundred yards on any given day—maybe 30 yards to your driveway, 50 to the office, a couple hundred while at work. I frequently work out of my house and can go almost an entire day without walking more than 10 or 20 yards at a time.
But even the most basic travel sometimes requires more steps than a day at the office. Even if you drive to the airport, you have to hoof it across the skyway from the parking lot, then to check-in, then through security, then to your gate—this alone might get you covering more ground than a regular workday.
The steps add up. The longest walking distances between gates at some U.S. airports can range from a half-mile up to two miles, according to USA Today.
These are respectable distances; two miles with a carry-on bag or two is approaching “hike” status if you ask me.
Track Sleep on the Plane
Lots of us doze off at some point in-flight, and when traveling long distances these can be some really helpful Zs. In the absence of clocks, normal mealtimes, a view out the window, and other factors that help us track time, however, it can be nearly impossible to know how much sleep you actually bagged.
I have taken red-eyes on which I fell asleep before takeoff and then thought I slept almost the entire flight, with maybe a few short stirrings due to meal service, people moving around, or a neck crick. Reckoned on a fitness tracker, however, I found I did not get the nearly six hours of sleep I thought I had, but logged more like 3.5 hours of actual sleep time. No wonder I felt wrecked the next day.
This information is helpful to know both at the outset of travel and when coming home; a restful vacation often concludes with a grueling forced march of pre-dawn wakeups, airport connections, and tarmac strandings. Having a bit of data about how much sleep you actually sacrified can help you reset when you finally get home.
Measure Sleep During Your Trip
Getting your sleep under control when traveling is perhaps one of the most common and oft-mentioned challenges, and having a baseline from “real life” will help you understand what you need when you’re trying to adjust to jet lag and catch some Zs at a hotel.
Survive a Business Trip
Frequent business travel is grueling and has been found to speed up the aging process and increase your risk of suffering several life-threatening conditions, according to Harvard Business Review. Time changes, extreme jet lag, poor sleep, bad food, too much alcohol, and other factors pile up over time to beat up frequent travelers.
If you’re a road warrior, using a fitness tracker to monitor sleep, activity levels, resting heart rate, and more could help you take better care of yourself and lower the risk of ill effects during your business trips.
Inspire You to Go to the Hotel Gym
Most hotel fitness centers are desolate little closets with CNN headlines blaring at you from a TV on the wall and no one else around to share the misery. So who could blame you for not wanting to drag yourself out of the comfort of your hotel room?
But hard data can sometimes create considerable motivation—and if your activity tracker is showing that you haven’t gotten many steps in over the past few days, it just might goad you into working up a sweat.
If the hotel gym is still a dungeon too far, use the data to get you out of the hotel and to a local running trail.
Start a Fitness Program
The capstone achievement of all this information might be to use your activity tracker on a trip to kick-start a fitness routine that you’ve been putting off due to other obligations, inertia, or excuses.
I found myself in this situation over the summer, so on a business trip I booked lodging that was close enough to where I would be working to make a car ride seem silly, but not so far that I would run late or even be discouraged by a little bit of weather. At the end of a week I had logged more walking miles on my fitness tracker than I had in the entire previous month; then I took a short vacation that involved some hiking (that was much easier than I had anticipated, so I knew I was onto something)—and I was under way. Now, five months on, that “walking start” is still paying dividends.