Ask ACE: Data-driven Personal Training
In this series, ACE experts answer your health and exercise questions. From nutrition to youth fitness, you’ll find detailed answers to many of the questions that may come up in your work with clients. If you have questions you’d like to ask our experts, please email us at Christine.Ekeroth@acefitness.org.
Ted Vickey, PhD, is the ACE senior consultant for emerging technologies and a long-time ACE Certified Personal Trainer. Referred to as "one of the most connected men in fitness," Vickey served as executive director of the White House Athletic Center under three presidents before starting FitWell Inc., a fitness management consulting company.
Q: Most of my clients now use wearable devices to track their steps, workouts and sleep habits. Should I try to use this data when designing exercise programs for them? Or is it better to rely on my experience and knowledge (that is, after all, why they hired me)?
A: I started my fitness career as a personal trainer in the early 1990s. I had a fantastic science foundation with my Exercise and Sports Science degree from Penn State and my ACE Personal Trainer certification. Combined, these provided me with my tools to create fitness programs for my clients. But even with these tools, I often relied upon my intuition.
Merriam-Webster defines intuition as “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought or inference.” I used my intuition on a daily basis to determine things like:
- If my client really did count all sets and reps
- If my client really did their exercise sessions when we weren’t together
- Why one program worked, while another did not
According to a 2017 study, more than half of Americans trust their “gut” to tell them what is true and what isn’t. While intuition can be a helpful tool in deciding what exercises to recommend to your clients, it would be a mistake to base every programming decision upon it.
That’s where data comes into the picture.
In 2016, Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour, said, “Data is the new oil.” I’ve been collecting and researching self-reported health and fitness data from apps and wearables for more than a decade. I’ve seen positive and powerful changes in health when a health and exercise professional effectively uses the vast collection of their client’s health and fitness data.
Think about it: If your client uses a wearable device, there is a flood of data collected in real-time just waiting to be used. From sleep time to steps, heart rate to hand washing, clients are producing actionable data every second. It’s time to use this data to help your clients along their own paths to better health and wellness.
And that’s where you, the health and exercise professional, come into this picture. You have the opportunity to create a new and more accurate, effective and motivational way to train your clients. Through data, you can verify, quantify, understand and implement your fitness program for your client’s wellness success.
I call it "data-driven personal training," or DDPT.
The concept of data-based decision-making isn’t new. Corporate America uses it every day. A recent analysis of more than 1,000 executives suggests that those who use data are three times more likely to report significant improvements in decision-making compared to those who are less reliant on the data.
While I could create a laundry list of why I think it is essential for you as a health and exercise professional to use data to drive your programming, I believe the most important reason is the validation it brings to you and your fitness business. A hallmark of ACE that is at the foundation of its brand—from its study materials and the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® Model to its community outreach and continuing education—is a commitment to consistently provide both professionals and the public with evidence-based information so that individuals can make informed decisions about physical activity, health and fitness. That foundation is built upon data, which allows you to provide accountability, while also creating an opportunity to motivate your clients with real, collected data. Data allows you as a trainer to become even more personal.
Don’t let a fear of technology or lack of understanding of collected data dissuade you from using it. It’s easier than you think. While there are many types of data you can collect, let’s focus first on daily steps taken, which is often misunderstood.
How many times have you heard—and perhaps even offered—the advice to take at least 10,000 steps per day for optimal health? Interestingly, there is little scientific, evidence-based data to support that recommendation. In fact, research published in 2019 suggests that a smaller number of steps—approximately 4,400 per day—may be sufficient for improving health. Using a data-driven approach, it is possible to create a more accurate and personalized recommendation for each client.
Using the step myth as a model, you can create a simple, actionable and progressive training plan for your client. Here’s how:
Step 1: Baseline
The first step in data-driven personal training is to determine a baseline. To begin, have your client track their usual number of steps during the first week. The goal isn’t to have them try to immediately improve but rather to establish their baseline. For this example, let’s assume 5,000 was the average number of daily steps your client took over the week.
Step 2: Set the Goal
Once you have established your client’s baseline daily step goal, set a weekly goal. Making a goal that is too aggressive may cause your client to resent the activity. Through practice, I have found that 10% over their baseline is typically an achievable goal. The only way you will determine your own “percentage goal to increase” is to try it with a few of your clients.
Step 3: Track
The tracking is the easy part. Once you have established the daily step goal for the week, track your client’s step totals. There are several apps and wearables that will allow you to view your client’s daily steps (as well as other health and fitness metrics – see sidebar). Like the famous infomercial declares, you can “set it and forget it” and watch their numbers.
Step 4: Rinse and Repeat
Using this new week of data, adjust the next week’s step goal. You can use the same percentage increase to allow for the progression or one of your choice.
For a sample Excel spreadsheet to use with your clients, visit www.tedv.link/steps.
The beauty of the DDPT approach is that it is simple to implement and easy to maintain. You can change any of the variables—the percentage increase, the app or wearable used, the length of the baseline measurement period or the health metric measured. No matter the change, the method works.
These are the most common forms of collectable data from wearable devices, which you can use to help guide your clients toward achieving their health and fitness goals:
- Heart rate
- Sleep time and quality
- Food consumption
- Heart-rate variability