Swiss Ball. ThighMaster. Fitbit.
The tools we rely on for getting in shape have gotten way cooler—and more sophisticated—over the years. But even though it seems everyone and their mom (your mom, too) is addicted to counting their steps, it doesn’t mean that fitness trackers are actually doing all that much to help you get healthier.
A whopping 25 million activity trackers will be sold this year alone, and the trend isn’t slowing down—wearable tech is predicted to be an $80-million-dollar market by 2018. As the demand swells, manufacturers are tricking out their products to do more and more: measure sleep, track heart rate, calculate calories burned, even remind you when to stand up from your desk. For some reason, it’s captivating to watch those steps pile up as you walk (for the third time) to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.
But sadly, one-third of Americans who buy an activity tracker stop using it altogether after about six months, and 80 percent stopped using it after a year and a half. It’s not that the hardware breaks—it’s that it becomes just another chore, like going to the gym. Activity trackers aren’t some magic bullet made to motivate and spur weight loss and health. They’re really just a tool to hold you accountable, and if you’re a certain type of person, they can be valuable. But are they really worth the big bucks? Let’s break down the good and the bad about activity trackers.
A huge component of getting in shape or improving wellness is accountability. It’s why programs like Weight Watchers work, and why you’re less likely to cancel a gym sesh if you know your trainer is there waiting for you. We’re happy to let ourselves off the hook—either out of fear, exhaustion, or sheer laziness—but when we have to face the repercussions of our choice it’s a lot harder to justify skipping a workout.
Activity trackers can help you stay focused in a few ways. Uploading your info to an app or website means you’re forced to see those little slip-ups—like if you didn’t meet your activity goal for the day. Your tracker will even remind you regularly to get moving, by buzzing or sending you a message to stand up or go for a walk.
Being part of a group that supports and encourages you is another aspect of accountability. And using a social circle as motivation is pretty powerful, as makers of fitness trackers have come to learn. Many of these devices have a social component, allowing you to connect with friends and family over an app and see each other’s progress. This promotes some healthy competition, which can definitely encourage you to get active. But even once that initial competitiveness wears, off it’s nice knowing you’re all in it together.
The best thing about wearable tech might be that it puts a spotlight on which aspects of your lifestyle could use some improvement. Most track steps and movement (great for people who sit at a desk all day), but some can even tell you how well you sleep at night or show variations in heart rate—a key component in telling how well recovered you are for your next training session and how much your cardio endurance has improved over time. As you get more data about your habits and patterns—maybe you’re way more active on the weekends, but get better sleep during the week—you can make the necessary adjustments for better health.
OK, there are definitely some good reasons to invest in a fitness tracker. But before you do, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
As a runner, I’m big on tracking my progress. I have a GPS running watch that uses a heart rate monitor, which is one of the most accurate ways to tell how many calories you’re burning during a workout. When I tested a regular activity tracker versus my heart rate monitor watch—wearing one on my right arm and one on my left arm during a regular run—there was a huge discrepancy in the number of calories burned. That’s a huge problem for wearable tech. Often these devices don’t take into consideration the type of exercise you’re doing and they don’t know how hard you’re working (which is determined by heart rate), so they’re basically just guessing average calories burned. It depends on the device, but some don’t even register biking or swimming, logging the movement as “steps” instead of more challenging exercise.
If you’re trying to lose weight, and determine how much you can eat based on your daily caloric expenditure, it’s best not to trust a basic tracker. If you can afford to invest in a device with a heart rate monitor, that will give you a much more accurate read of calories burned.
Having all the charts and graphs related to your health doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to do with the data. That’s where activity trackers fall short. For people who are pretty fit, moderately active, and have a regular exercise routine, using a Fitbit for a month probably won’t result in a wellness epiphany. In fact, the tracker might just tell you to keep doing what you’re doing. And if you don’t understand what they mean, your heart rate variability stats won’t help you.
Most people need more specific coaching in order to really improve their health and overall wellness, and probably need help interpreting the information their device is telling them. After all, an activity tracker probably won’t recommend that you meditate for 10 minutes during that 2 p.m. hour that always zaps your energy, or tell you to ease up on the coffee after you’ve had your third cup of the day. If you really want to overhaul your health, consider taking the money you might spend on an activity tracker and hiring a coach instead—even a few sessions with a pro can help you get on track.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho