Have you ever had a friend who complained that they didn’t want to work out because they forgot their FitBit or Apple Watch at home and therefore their efforts ‘won’t count’? I have seen this, and I am also guilty of kicking myself for forgetting my beloved fitness tracker watch in the charger at home. This obsessive and seemingly counter-productive fixation on tracking steps and fitness begs the question: Is all this emphasis on digital fitness tracking and wearables even helping people?

In short, fitness trackers of all brands do seem to be moderately helpful as motivational tools to get people to move and to help kickstart weight loss. However, like all emerging technologies, they have their shortcomings and cannot be relied upon as foolproof.

Fitness trackers as motivational tools

StudyFinds.org summarized a compelling study in their article “Do fitness trackers really help you lose weight? Study puts wearable tech to test”. The Study Finds article simplifies some of the more complex language of the original article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine titled “Health wearable devices for weight and BMI reduction in individuals with overweight/obesity and chronic comorbidities: systematic review and network meta-analysis.”

The study itself analyzed 2,268 people and used data from 31 previous clinical trials, specifically homing in on the impact of fitness trackers on overweight and obese participants with heart conditions. This included individuals with various cancers, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea and high cholesterol.

The gadgets studied ran the gamut from FitBit, Samsung Charm and wearable motion sensors. Participants wore the fitness tracker from four weeks to a year while setting goals to meet based on daily steps or reaching at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense physical activity, typically brisk walking. Surprisingly, all devices seemed to help the users lose weight and reduce their BMI. An exercise regimen of at least 12 weeks appeared to produce the best results. So, in terms of motivational assistance, fitness trackers appear to have some clinical merit, but let’s look at some ways in which the technology probably still needs to improve.

How accurate are fitness trackers?

The potential danger of relying on fitness trackers too heavily lies in the fact that they are not necessarily always accurate, especially in terms of calories burned during exercise. Another StudyFinds.org article, this one titled “Fitness trackers largely inaccurate when measuring calories burned, study finds” discusses how fitness trackers typically measure heart rate well but not energy expenditure.

The summarized study, published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine, tested seven popular fitness trackers such as Fitbit Surge and Apple Watch. Heart rate typically proved relatively accurate within a five percent margin of error. However, none of the tested devices were able to get in even a ballpark of accuracy in regard to energy spent, typically off by an average of 27 percent in terms of calories burned, with the least accurate off by a crazy 93 percent. This was in comparison to medical devices, so the typical user probably isn’t expecting medical grade accuracy, but still, the bullseye is too far shot.

The disparity largely can be traced back to the fact that consumer devices are not held to the same standard as those used for direct medical purposes. And in actuality, these devices are not tailored enough to unique body specifications to honestly claim reliable caloric burn-off. So, if you are a religious food tracker and trying to see just how many calories you are taking into your body and then burning off, popular fitness trackers just aren’t currently up to the task.

To wear or not to wear?

 Fitness tracker watches and wearables can be pretty expensive. The upcoming Apple Watch 7, for example, is expected to sell for about $400 dollars, and even though it has numerous other features beyond fitness tracking, it is still a hefty sum. Fitbits typically run for about $150 depending on the model. So, it is an investment in your health that you have to decide whether or not is worth it.

I personally love my Fitbit, a Fitbit Charge 4. I mainly use it to motivate myself to keep moving by setting fitness goals through the app and trying to stay true to them. I feel I have been most consistent with reaching a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, as well as shooting for 4-5 moderate workouts a week that I track with the Fitbit. What is really cool is being able to look back and see how well I have done over time. So, it is a great motivator and self-accountability. Some people like to challenge each other to see who can meet their goals better or faster, and that is a great, healthy thing too.

So, if you are looking for something to help you get moving and track your progress to a limited extent, fitness trackers might be worth it to you. But if you want something with laser-accurate fitness tracking abilities, you would probably need a medical-grade solution that might be hard to find at a commercial level.


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