Do Fitness Trackers Work?

do fitness trackers work?

Fitness tracker: Good tool to have in your health and wellness arsenal? Or expensive, rubbery bangle?

What’s your heart rate right now? Oxygen level? Until a few years ago, you wouldn’t be concerned with these numbers unless you were lying in a hospital bed. But the ability to track our biodata has left the medical building and has moved into our gyms, trails, stairwells and beds. You’ve seen these gadgets—FitBit Flex, Jawbone Up, Magellan Echo and hundreds of others—on the wrists and waists of your coworkers, family and friends. Wearable fitness is a $1.15-billion industry, so clearly, a lot of people have gotten on the bandwagon.

But… do fitness trackers work? Do they make us any healthier? Or are they just a fitness trend destined to go the same way as rollerblades and the Thigh Master? I wanted to find out, so I researched some of the most common questions people have about fitness trackers. Here’s what I discovered.

do fitness trackers work? photo: Fitbit

What exactly are they measuring?
Each model of tracker analyzes different stats, but on the whole they can monitor distance, calorie intake, calorie burn, heart rate, blood oxygen level, skin temperature, how well and long you’re sleeping, and how many steps you’ve taken. They can even track your mood, through watching your breath and blood pressure.

Are they accurate?
Ehhh, no. An Iowa State study found that calories burned were generally off by about 10 percent, and could be off by as much as 23.5 percent. In another study, published in the Journal of American Medical Association, a Nike+ FuelBand counted 20 percent less steps than the study participant actually took. Researchers have also found that trackers located on a shoe measured more accurately than trackers that were attached on a waistband.

However, if you’re using the tracker to motivate yourself, rather than track everything down to the calorie or 1/100th of a mile, it really doesn’t matter if the numbers are slightly off. For example, one tracker might say you walked 9,452 steps, and another, 9,500 steps, but if you’re taking an extra loop around the block to hit your daily goal of 10,000 steps, that’s the point—you kept going.

Will they motivate me?
Most people vow to go to eat their broccoli, tuck into bed earlier and hit the gym … right after this episode of Scandal and a handful of peanut M&Ms. Trackers help keep us accountable. First off, you’re wearing it, so it’s a visual reminder. (Imagine a little voice saying, “Psst! Get off this sofa, baby.”). Trackers can also keep you honest. It might feel like you did an hour of walking, but your device knows it was only 38 minutes. Busted! Tracking food and activity does help people stop under- and over-estimating. Trackers are interactive, too. They can buzz when you meet your goal, or alert you if you haven’t gotten up from your chair in an hour. So yes, there’s a motivational factor.

Do people really get healthier wearing one?
The very act of tracking movement is powerful, according to researchers from Indiana University. They found that if sedentary adults wore even a simple pedometer, they became more active. They sat less, and boosted their daily walks. Several other studies have shown that measuring activity does lead to greater physical movement, with corresponding decreases in weight and blood pressure.

Will they help me lose weight?
Maybe? According to a Today.com article, many fitness tracker owners find that they gained weight after donning their new wearable. Doctors explain that tracking the number of calories doesn’t paint the whole picture. “[People] don’t think about all the other factors, like the kind of calorie you are consuming.” Fitness trackers are great at helping you remember to record what you eat, and how frequently you exercise, but the calorie counting shouldn’t be used as a license to eat with abandon. All the regular dieting rules still apply.

Are spying on me?
Yup. Cutting-edge health tech is collecting all sorts of intriguing information while it hangs off our wrists or our pants. In the future, this data may be irresistible to insurance companies, who could theoretically use it to determine who should get lower premiums. Or pharmaceutical giants, who might like to sell us some prescriptions for that high blood pressure. Or marketers, who might pop out of the bushes wielding a box of Fiber One. But, there’s also a potential upside: Having huge amounts of health data about a population could lead to, as Slate reports, “Life-saving and life-enriching innovations.” Whether big data is an opportunity, or a consumer privacy nightmare, remains to be seen.

Are they worth the money?
I have to give you a resounding maybe. Several studies have shown that a pedometer works just as well as a fancy tracker, when it comes to motivation, so know that before you shop. It all comes down to your habits, personality, fashion sense and budget.

As with so many things in life, if it works for you, wonderful! If not, don’t feel like you have to use a fitness tracker. There are many paths to wellbeing, and what’s important is that you’re happy with the one you’re on.

So tell me: Are you considering buying a fitness tracker? Or if you already use one, which brand, and what do you like or dislike about it?

Photo: Jawbone

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