Fitness Trackers: Do They Actually Improve Your Health?
Fitness trackers have been around for a while now, and while they once came in simple forms with simple functions, these wristband devices now provide streamlined multi-tracking. But what’s their purpose, and how well do they work? Can these wearable bands actually boost your health?
Fitness Tracker Basics
When fitness trackers first came on the market in 2009, they served to count your steps and provide general data on your physical activity throughout the day. While they still do provide that information, modern trackers also take note of calories burned, heart rate and other vitals. Some even send notifications to your phone, sync with other devices and let you share stats with friends.
All of this data aims to help you get active and stay active. When you can see how many steps you’ve taken or not taken, and when you can see whether your heart rate is elevated, you can take action to improve your health.
The Good About Fitness Trackers
These wearables come in different forms, with some trackers logging all-day movement, others tracking workout stats and still others noting your sleep habits as they relate to your overall fitness.
Here’s a deeper look at what fitness bands can do, with the caveat that some functions only come with select trackers.They track your steps
Fitness trackers have either an accelerometer or a pedometer tasked with counting the number of steps you take. Pedometers keep count by recording the swinging motion of your body, and accelerometers compare your direction and change in speed over time.
They keep tabs on calories burned
Most fitness trackers use a combination of accelerometer/pedometer tracking and your basal metabolic rate (BMR) to estimate how many calories you’re burning. The BMR comes from the data you enter about your age, height, weight and gender. Some fitness trackers take into account the calories you consume as well as the ones you burn, which requires you to enter the number of calories you eat at each meal.
They monitor elevation changes
Ever wanted to know how many flights of stairs you’ve tackled? Fitness trackers with an altimeter can tell you just that. Altimeters are a type of barometer, and they measure atmospheric pressure compared to that of sea level. This comparison will give you your altitude, or height above sea level. By keeping track of your altitude as it changes, fitness trackers keep track of the number of stairs you’ve climbed.
They check sleep quality
Monitoring you while you sleep might seem unusual, but it can help you connect the dots with your daytime energy, weight loss goals and general alertness. Using actigraphy, a tool that monitors motion, fitness trackers can tell when you’re awake or in various sleep stages – like light or deep/REM sleep.
If you find that the sleep monitor says you’re asleep when you aren’t – such as when you’re lying still, reading in bed – you can revise the counter and see the updated tally.
They note your location and travel route
Trackers with a built-in GPS are useful if you do a lot of distance running or want to track your jogs through a local park. They can help you gauge how far your workout has taken you, tying in useful add-ins like heart rate or calories burned.
They monitor your heart rate and breathing
Fitness trackers use a heart rate monitor where sensors shine light through your skin and into your blood vessels to detect flow and volume changes. The reflected light indicates your overall blood volume and pulse, showing whether you’re in good shape or whether you need to change your habits.
They can factor into your company’s wellness program
If your company has a wellness program, you might receive some type of benefit for working toward a fitness goal. Some health insurance companies will even lower their prices if you wear a fitness tracker and show proof of data.
The Not-so-Good About Fitness Trackers
They can be pricey
If you’ve never owned a fitness tracker before, they can have a hefty price tag. Wearables on the budget end might come in around $50 to $60, while most mid-range trackers will cost you $100 to $150. If you’re seeking a fitness tracker with a bunch of high-end tools, you should be prepared to dish out anywhere from $200 to $250.
They can lead to data fixation
Getting caught up in all the data can lead to overexertion, in which you’re always trying to beat your last numbers. It can also lead to misdirection, in which you’re so focused on the numbers that you don’t acknowledge how sweet the flowers are, or how afternoon sunlight makes the lake shimmer as you pass by.
They can lose their appeal
This one explains why fitness trackers sometimes end up in the hall closet or in a dresser drawer. If you don’t see results, or don’t have enough motivation, you might decide not to bother anymore. And if you’ve shelled out a fair amount for it, you certainly won’t be getting your money’s worth.
Now comes the time to ask that final question hovering at the back of your mind.
Do They Actually Boost Your Health?
Although doctors and researchers have conducted numerous studies, the results don’t give a definite answer. Some studies show a connection between fitness tracker usage, increased activity and better health, while others show little change. Remember, though, that fitness trackers track the numbers. Some send you nudges and invite you to share stats to stay accountable, but they can’t make you do something you don’t want to do.
According to doctors like Robert H. Shmerling from Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, one of the most important considerations is how you use the fitness tracker. He explains that it’s not enough to collect the numbers and hope that you’ll have enough incentive to continue. Many people need more specific goals and motivations to stay active.
Give yourself a specific goal, such as “run the Sprint triathlon in 1 hour and 55 minutes” or “walk for 15 minutes during lunch”. Your goals will help you decide which fitness tracker is the best choice. You can stay accountable by bringing friends along or setting up friendly competitions.
Fitness trackers are an important starting point. Make your fitness outings fun, social and realistic, and you’ll have a better chance of claiming victory on your health goals.