Are Fitness Trackers a Waste of Money?
I’m super fascinated by health monitoring. I love the quantified self movement. I love that there is an ever evolving arm of science and technology that can help us to get a better handle on the state of our health.
Yet, I’ve never been enamoured by fitness trackers.
In fact, I would go as far as to say I am sick of fitness trackers, having acquired and forgotten about at least half a dozen already.
At CES (Consumer Electronics Show) last week, wearable tech advances and new product releases were top of the agenda. Fitness trackers disguised as jewellery, wearables that claim to know how strong you are, and clothing with these devices built in… Nothing that excited me. They seemed unnecessary.
There were plenty of other health devices to capture my interest though: Withings Thermo infrared thermometer, Quell’s nerve stimulating technology to alleviate chronic pain, and Omron’s blood pressure monitor that looks more like a watch. These all seem more innovative with more direct application for assessing health.
However, back on topic, there’s no denying that fitness trackers have been sold in their millions.
So, who are they really useful for, what should you look for in a fitness tracker, and what stats should you take with a pinch of salt?
What do fitness trackers do?
Fitness trackers typically count your steps and monitor your sleep, both using the motion sensing accelerometer. Both of these capabilities are basically entry requirements for any brand wanting to introduce a fitness tracker.
Increasingly, fitness trackers monitor heart rate too, either by connecting to a heart rate strap (like Polar devices, which I recommend, by the way) or by utilising an optical heart rate sensor.
Some fitness trackers also have smartphone connectivity beyond simply syncing with their partner app, sending you push notifications (via vibration, audio alert or flashing lights) when you have incoming calls, messages and other notifications.
More specialist trackers, such as for running, also have functions like GPS tracking.
If you’re thinking of investing in a fitness tracker, it’s probably also worth considering whether you get one with a display screen or not. I personally like being able to glance at my wrist for feedback, instead of launching an app every time I want to check my progress. This is especially crucial when I’m on the go or actively working out.
What are the benefits of using a fitness tracker?
I think that my favourite benefit of fitness trackers is that they arm you with a little bit of knowledge that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Are you really as active as you think you are? Are you getting as much sleep as you claim?
Fitness trackers can really heighten your awareness of your own body.
When you’ve been stuck at a desk for a few hours without racking up some steps, you will be conscious of it. You will learn more about the quality of your sleep that you might have been able to guess at. You might even be better able to gauge the intensity that you are working out at, after a little time spent getting familiar with a heart rate monitor.
Fitness trackers are also extremely useful if you start working with a personal trainer or another exercise or medical professional.
Often, before starting a new training programme or treatment, you will have a consultation with your chosen expert. Your answers to the questions that they pose to you will be pretty subjective. For example, when I feel like I’ve been inactive or have had some days of ‘bad’ eating, I can only compare to my normal; in comparison to other people, I might still have been pretty mobile and had a high intake of nutrients.
Fitness trackers allow professionals to see what is really going on in your life without being invasive. You may only pay for their expertise an hour at a time, but with the help of fitness trackers, they can see how days or weeks of your time have been spent at the touch of a button, allowing them to help you more effectively.
Fitness trackers can be good motivation for some people.
Almost all trackers allow you to set some basic goals, such as how many steps you want to complete in a day.
It’s nice to see yourself smash goals daily, and it’s good motivation to get out and go for an extra walk to ensure that you hit your number.
The other great thing about these goals, is that the only person that you are competing with is yourself, and you are armed with the tool you need to keep yourself accountable.
It’s harder to make excuses when you have a hard number staring you in the face.
Fitness trackers are also great in this respect when you are working with a health professional. When you know that they are going to be seeing those hard numbers too, you’re a lot less likely to put your workout off until ‘tomorrow’ or forego a couple of hours sleep in favour of Netflix.
What are the downsides to fitness trackers?
Usefulness of the data
Unless you use them in the same way, day to day, the data isn’t comparable. Also, when looking back at the data, unless you have recorded a number of elements relevant to the data, it isn’t really that helpful.
For example, on a day when you exceeded your step target, what were you doing? Or that night that you slept so poorly, what had you eaten or drunk that day, and when? Each aspect of your health is affected by so many variables that it can be misleading, dangerous even, to consider things in isolation.
Without a full picture it’s very difficult to make progress using the data that your fitness tracker stores.
I really don’t know how accurate fitness trackers are.
I imagine that as the technology behind them develops, and new models get released, that they are becoming capable of better accuracy. I hope so anyway.
Nonetheless, if you make a protein shake while wearing your device, you will probably add another 20 steps onto your count.
You could ask the question though, how accurate do they really need to be? If you are using a fitness tracker to gain motivation and to increase your awareness of your body, you will probably be successful regardless of whether the sleep monitor records your wake up time to the nearest 30 seconds.
Just, please, please, don’t rely on the calorie counters. The same principles apply to treadmills in the gym - there's far too much going on with your body to say X amount of steps burned X amount of calories.
For me, and a lot of other people I know, the novelty of using a fitness tracker quickly wore off, even for fitness trackers that I was actually excited by at first.
I think this comes down to the fact that the numbers don’t mean much over time (see above).
Even though the devices are made to be easy to use for the everyday consumer, it may take the insight of an expert - a health coach or a personal trainer - to give context to the results and interpret them in a way that is meaningful and turn them into something actionable in the long term.
While you may initially find your fitness trackers goals to be motivating, at some point you will want to progress beyond counting to 8000 steps a day. And, while you may initially increase your awareness of your body, at some point you will outgrow your device, excited to use your freshly developed insight and intrinsic intuition.
These are positive signs! Just maybe not for your fitness tracker...
Expense, Apps + Market Saturation
Just a few other points to make…
Decent fitness trackers are expensive.
You will want to research them thoroughly before you buy. The only problem is that there are so many trackers to choose from, that it can be a bit of a minefield.
Fitness trackers are so mainstream now, that many of the functions, from sleep monitoring, to heart rate tracking are basic requirements, meaning that it is really hard to differentiate between brands and models. To be honest, it gives me a bit of a headache trying to keep up with the increasingly saturated market.
If you’re thinking of buying, ask for recommendations from people with similar needs to yourself, or trial one by borrowing from a friend or colleague if you can. Try to get an insight into the apps that they sync with too.
In my experience, the apps can be more problematic than the devices themselves and are where you can really be let down, so make sure that you are happy with elements like how it syncs with the device and how the data is displayed.
Who should use a fitness tracker?
I think that fitness trackers are great for beginners to fitness and healthy living, to find motivation, learn about their bodies, and help their personal trainer/doctor/life coach to better assist them.
More specialised trackers are useful for people with training goals, such as runners in marathon training, who need to monitor their progress.
If you already have a relatively good knowledge of health and fitness, you may not benefit largely from a fitness tracker, unless you know exactly what functionality you need and how you will use it.
Fitness trackers may also be useful to people who have had a lifestyle change, such as moving jobs. For example, when moving to a new office job with different demands, I used a fitness tracker to ensure that I didn’t become too inactive at my desk. In this sense, the fitness tracker helped me to gain perspective and reinforce habits. However, if I hadn’t have already had a fitness tracker at this point, I certainly wouldn’t have forked out for a top of the range one for this purpose alone.
For me to wear a fitness tracker, it has to give value and meaning to my everyday life, and help me to recognise where I can make improvements.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had many experiences with fitness trackers where they’ve told me something that I don’t already know.
I know if I’ve had a bad night’s sleep; I don’t need to check an app to find out. Similarly, I know when I haven’t been active enough during the day. And usually, if either of these situations occur, it’s because of some external factor that can’t be helped (such as when I was writing my dissertation, or when I have work deadlines to meet), in which case a constant vibrating on my wrist and failure to reach my step goals is only going to add to feelings of stress and anxiety.
Overall, I believe that depending on where you are at in your health and fitness journey, you will require a different combination of functions in a fitness tracker. And, if you can spare the time to laboriously sift through the options available on the market, you will find one that has what you need.
I will admit, there is a fitness tracker and heart rate monitor that has held my interest (and a spot on my wrist) for longer than I would have anticipated... Watch this space.
In the meantime, if you use any kind of fitness tracker, I would love to know what made you choose it and how you have found it helps you day-to-day. Leave your comment below or send me a tweet!