More and more people are wearing fitness trackers these days and the number will likely continue to grow. Remember pedometers? Although they’re still around, they now have major competition from trackers that measure everything from the steps you take, how long you sleep, your heart rate at various times of day, and how many calories you burned. How can a pedometer compete? Plus, trackers only promise to get more advanced. But, are there downsides to monitoring your every movement with a tracker? Would we be better getting back to basics?
Why Wear One?
First, let’s look at the pros of wearing a fitness tracker. One of the most powerful reasons to strap one on is as a reminder to sit less. Studies show sitting is a risk factor for health problems, like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature mortality. In fact, too much sitting is a risk factor independent of whether you do a structured workout. In other words, doing a 30-minute workout won’t make up for hours of sitting in a chair. Wearing a tracker is a technological nudge telling you to get up and walk around when you’ve sat too long. We all need nudges now and then.
The information a fitness tracker provides can also be a wake-up call. You might think you’re quite active, but a fitness tracker gives you hard data. Most people overestimate how much they move and underestimate how much they eat. A fitness tracker won’t tell you whether you’re eating too much but it will give you a more realistic look at how much you actually move.
The Downsides of Fitness Trackers
As good as wearing a fitness tracker might sound based on the ads, they don’t have a lot of staying power among people who wear them. In fact, a Forbes study found that 42% of people who use these devices abandon them within 6 months. Does the novelty wear off or do they start to feel “strapped” to their devices? It’s not uncommon for people to purchase exercise equipment, use it for a few months, and then repurpose it to hang clothes on. So, it’s not surprising that fitness trackers lose their novelty as well. At least a fitness tracker costs less than a treadmill!
There is another potential downside of wearing one. Some people become obsessed with the numbers these devices kick back at you. Adding more steps becomes almost like a game you play with yourself where the only goal is to beat your last numbers. Such obsession with numbers isn’t healthy, especially for people with an obsessive-compulsive tendency. Monitoring steps and calories burned so closely may be especially harmful to people with eating disorders.
Even for people without an eating disorder, tracking the numbers and trying to beat them can actually create more stress. Exercise is supposed to be a stress reliever, not add more stress to your life.
Then, there’s the accuracy issue. How much can you depend on the numbers a fitness tracker provides? The good news is fitness trackers have become more accurate over the years. For heart rate monitoring, the error rate has fallen to less than 5%. So, you can get a fairly accurate idea of how high your heart rate is during and after exercise. It’s also helpful for measuring heart rate recovery, a marker of cardiovascular health and fitness.
Where some fitness trackers still fall short is in estimating calories burned during exercise. When researchers at Stanford University tested seven fitness bands, calorie burn accuracy ranged from being off by 27% to more than 90%. So, you might be paying for a device that still doesn’t give you accurate feedback on how many calories you burned. Accuracy tends to vary based on the type of activity. According to a study discussed on Reuters, the greatest degree of error was with lower intensity movements, like cleaning the house, walking at a leisurely pace, and climbing stairs.
Why such a large discrepancy? Some people are more efficient when they exercise. They do fewer extraneous movements that burn extra calories. At this point, fitness trackers aren’t very capable of distinguishing between the two. Plus, fitness trackers estimate the number of calories you burned based on your calculated resting basal metabolic rate, the number of calories you burn when you aren’t exercising. To get this value, the tracker uses your age, weight, and height. The equations used to make these calculations aren’t entirely accurate.
Should You Wear a Fitness Tracker?
If you need a little extra motivation to move more or want to track your heart rate, wearing a fitness tracker may give it to you. If you’re already an active person, then you don’t need the extra nudge that a fitness tracker gives you. There’s nothing “magical” about wearing one. Strapping one on your wrist won’t necessarily improve your workouts. You still have to do the work! And don’t forget, the lack of accuracy for measuring calorie burn can make you think you’ve worked harder than you actually have.
Whatever you do, don’t fixate on the numbers to the point that you no longer enjoy working out. And if you’ve ever become too focused on the numbers on the bathroom scale, you should avoid using a tracking device. Constantly trying to beat the number of calories you burned yesterday isn’t healthy. Strapping on a fitness tracker can cause competitive instincts to take over and turn the focus of working out into beating yesterday’s or last week’s numbers. It’s all about moderation. Your body needs downtime and lower intensity workouts too.
The Bottom Line
Know the limitations of a fitness tracker and the fact that no tracker is 100% accurate. For some people, keeping a fitness journal may be just as helpful as strapping on a fitness tracker and it’ll only be a fraction of the cost!
· Harvard Health Publishing. “Activity trackers: Can they really help you get fit?”
· J Am Diet Assoc. 1995 Dec;95(12):1387-92.
· Forbes.com. “Sneakernomics: Wearable Technology and Sports Retail”
· Scientific American. “Fitness Bands Fail on Calorie Counts”
· Reuters.com. “Fitness trackers’ accuracy varies widely for calories burned”