Fitness trackers have been growing in popularity over the past decade. Even in the 90s and early 2000’s people tracked their steps with basic pedometers. Like most things, technology improved our ability to track fitness, sleep, and food/water intake.
I’ve had some sort of activity tracker stuck to my wrist almost every day for over 5 years. During this time, I’ve owned quite a few different brands including Fitbit, Jawbone, Garmin, and Samsung. For years I have been completely obsessed with getting extra steps, manually tracking spinning classes, and comparing my tracker with everyone else’s. There are a lot of great things that come with keeping track of your physical activity, but recently I’ve been growing frustrated with the power this little band has over me. I know that seems dramatic, but seriously. Last week I ran in place for 5 minutes to reach my step goal. I have chosen to run on the treadmill over lifting weights because it would get me more steps. I was once late for a meeting because I took 10 flights of stairs instead of using the elevator.
Without getting into the differences between the different bands, here are the pros and cons of activity trackers as a whole.
Pros of using an activity tracker
Accountability. The most common reason my clients look for a dietitian is because even though they know what to do, they need accountability to actually get it done. A fitness tracker works the same way in helping us reach fitness goals. Most trackers come with an app for your smartphone that displays a log of your activities. This keeps me motivated to exercise consistently and for an appropriate amount of time. A lot of newer fitness trackers also have a feature that sends a notification when you have been sitting for too long, essentially saying get yo’ butt up. This is helpful at work, reminding me to stretch my legs and take short walks throughout the day.
Easy. Activity trackers take the thought out of monitoring your activity (and inactivity). This is great to show gaps in the amount of physical activity you do. For example, I noticed that I am very inactive until about 5:30 pm (when I get home from work). Not just a few times a week, but almost every day. Once I noticed this, I started taking 10 minute walks before and after lunch. Granted, this isn’t going to result in big changes, but I’ve already noticed improvements in my mood and productivity.
Reality check. Fitness trackers provide an approximate number of calories that were burned during a workout, which can be extremely helpful. People (especially women) tend to overeat after exercise, leading to weight gain instead of weight loss. When we see that 30 minutes on the elliptical and 15 minutes of lifting weights burns a mere 375 calories (similar to a 6 oz chicken breast and 1 tablespoon of butter), we may think twice about having that chocolate cake after dinner.
Visualize progression. Most fitness trackers make it easy to see your progress both during a workout and over time. For example, I was taking a pretty advanced spinning class a few weeks ago and KNEW I was going to struggle. I let my tracker know which activity I was doing and it vibrated every 10 minutes until I was through with the class. It was motivating to know when I was halfway through and when there were only 10 minutes left. My current tracker also has a built-in GPS that notifies me when I have reached certain distances, making running races much more tolerable.
The smartphone app for most trackers offer a list of steps taken, activities completed, or calories burned over a particular period of time. This can be encouraging to someone working towards a goal, like running their first 5K.
Cons of using an activity tracker
Accuracy. Over the years I have found that some fitness trackers are more accurate than others. I once wore a Jawbone and Fitbit at the same time on a run. One device told me I burned 115 calories and took 2200 steps, while the other said I burned 280 calories and took 3500 steps. Using tools provided during my graduate and undergraduate exercise science courses, I quickly figured out the first device was closest to the truth. However, an unknowing individual may use the second device and either workout for less time or eat more, trusting the inaccurate information. Always take the statistics provided with a grain of salt. You can test the relative accuracy of your tracker by walking or jogging a mile – you should be taking approximately 2000 steps (varies based on the length of your legs) and burning around 100 calories (varies based on age, gender, and size). The number of calories burned during strength training is harder to test. I typically trust trackers with a heart rate monitor more, but won’t plan what I eat around the information provided.
Need to be wearing them. None of the benefits of activity trackers can work in your favor if you don’t have them on. Some people forget to put them on in the morning and others believe they get in the way of daily activities. Most trackers aren’t visually appealing, making them difficult to wear to formal occasions. I never wear my trackers to weddings but always want to know how many calories I burn while dancing (sigh).
Preoccupation with daily goals. Okay, having a daily step/activity goal is a great thing. It gets me off my butt and helps get me to the gym. However, there are times when I choose what workout I do based on how my tracker will read it. For example, after my last half marathon, my knees hated me. I really wanted to ride my bike for a half-hour, but I knew I wouldn’t reach my step goal if I did that. Instead, I rode the bike for 15 minutes and ran for 15 minutes, likely delaying my recovery. Just the other day I opted out of cardio completely and did an hour of strength training instead. I’m sweating like a pig when I get done, look down at my tracker, and read that I’m not even 1/2 way to reaching my step goal and have burned 900 calories for the day (including my resting metabolic rate and activity). I know that what I did was beneficial to my health, maybe even better than focusing on cardio. However, I didn’t feel accomplished because of the reading the hardware on my wrist gave me.
All in all, fitness trackers are a great tool to track progress and increase activity levels. The trouble comes when people (myself included) become so preoccupied with the readings that they shape their eating and exercise patterns to make their device happy.
Do you have a fitness tracker? What are your thoughts on them?
** I currently have a Samsung Gear S2 that I use as a “smart watch” while I’m at work and out with friends. I also have the Samsung Fit2, which also has similar “smart watch” features, but is much better at tracking activity.