Healthy Living

Fitness Trackers: Trend or Tool

Jul. 28, 2015
Move over, wristwatch, there’s a new accessory in town and it’s sleek, functional and wildly popular. Wearable fitness devices—think FitBit, Garmin, Jawbone, Apple Watch—are strapped around the wrists of people everywhere, tracking their every move. We asked UR Medicine family physician Dr. Michael Mendoza if they’re a trend, a status symbol, or a useful wellness tool.
wearable fitness tracker
Health Matters: It seems like those wristbands are popping up on people everywhere. Is FitBit the new pedometer, or a passing fancy?
Mendoza: Without question, wearable trackers are immensely popular despite offering little more than what we’d expect from traditional pedometers. Whether that popularity is a fashion trend or a social networking trend—or from something else—it appears that wearables are here to stay. And it's likely there's more to it. 
Regardless, it’s clear that obesity is an epidemic that's not going away anytime soon, and even those who are healthy and active find it difficult to maintain that lifestyle. Wearables serve as a constant reminder of whatever it is we strive to achieve—steps walked, minutes jogged, or calories tracked. There's no question that feedback is important. It's hard to improve without it and, for some, wearable devices are a simple, if not trendy, way to get that feedback.
Health Matters: Do you recommend them for your patients?
Mendoza: While aiming for a healthy lifestyle is a good goal for everyone, activity trackers may not be for everyone. Simply having an activity tracker is not enough, and for many patients they represent a significant expense. I encourage all of my patients to look at their overall priorities, their time, their social supports and their short- and long-term goals.  
For those who seek motivation, the information provided by wearables may fit the bill. For others, it's information overload. Active people who are looking to take their activity to the next level may find that wearables offer feedback that might otherwise be hard to find. The most important role these devices can play is in helping you reach your personal goals.
Whether you’re looking to start an exercise program or you’re currently active and considering the purchase of a wearable tracker, I suggest a device with a heart rate monitor. Knowing your heart rate can help you know when to keep going and when to ease off during a workout. For most people, it’s best to target 50 percent to 69 percent of your maximum heart rate for moderate physical activity, and closer to 70 percent and 85 percent for very rigorous activity. You can calculate your maximum heart rate  by subtracting your age in years from 220. (See chart below courtesy of the American Heart Association.)
target heart rate chart
Health Matters: Any advice for choosing a tracker?
Mendoza: There are many makes and models of trackers on the market, in a range of styles and prices. Though I'm not aware of any studies that have rigorously evaluated the newer devices, there is evidence that wearing a pedometer is associated with increased physical activity and decreased cardiovascular complications even after only one year. And, the more active a person is, the greater the benefit. This should not come as a surprise to anyone! There’s also evidence that people who are more active tend to have healthier diets—so it’s a win all around.
If you want to try a tracker but aren’t ready to shell out the cash, a pedometer is a useful, more affordable option and perfectly adequate for measuring your steps. Newer, more sophisticated wearable devices offer more information, but at a price. If you’re not naturally drawn to electronics, or the opportunities for social networking that these devices can offer, you may not find the added information worth the cost.
Michael Mendoza, MD
Michael D. Mendoza, M.D., M.P.H., is medical director at UR Medicine's Highland Family Medicine and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.