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Fitness Trackers – Worth It?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

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I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to technology.  Sure, I have a smart phone, google like a champ, and of course, use my laptop non-stop at work but on my free time, I would rather be tech-free.  Therefore, I have been hesitant to buy or even look into fitness trackers such as the Fitbit.  Many of my friends have one and seem quite taken with counting steps, monitoring sleep, and calculating calorie expenditure.   Many of them have increased their daily walking (good for them!) and some have even improved the number of hours they sleep each night. Others are simply more aware but the devices have done little to nothing to improve their overall health or lifestyle.   Whether or not they are effective, wearable devices are most likely here to stay.  Statista.com reports the number of connected wearable devices worldwide is expected to jump to over 830 million by 2020. As wearable technology is now part of the public’s daily wardrobe, it is entering the world of research.  Universities and private research organizations are investigating the accuracy and effectiveness of these devices.  It is, however, hard for research to keep up as the technology changes faster than the studies can be completed.  That being said, over the last few years, a certain number of trends have emerged from the studies to date.

Fitness Tracker Strengths

  • Most fitness trackers are quite accurate at counting steps.  A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse study tested five devices for accuracy by comparing the trackers’ numbers with the actual number of steps taken on a treadmill or elliptical.  All five devices predicted within 10 percent accuracy the number of steps taken during treadmill walking and running, as well as during elliptical exercise.

  • By wearing the devices all day, people can see whether they need to add more activity throughout the day. According to University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. John Porcari, “Studies show that people are 30 to 40 percent more active when they use activity trackers.”  

Most fitness trackers are quite accurate at counting steps.  A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse study tested five devices for accuracy by comparing the trackers’ numbers with the actual number of steps taken on a treadmill or elliptical.  All five devices predicted within 10 percent accuracy the number of steps taken during treadmill walking and running, as well as during elliptical exercise.

By wearing the devices all day, people can see whether they need to add more activity throughout the day. According to University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. John Porcari, “Studies show that people are 30 to 40 percent more active when they use activity trackers.”  

Fitness Tracker Weaknesses

  • While trackers count walking and running steps well, they are not nearly as accurate with other activities that require agility moves such as playing basketball or dancing. These activities have complex foot work with short and long strides combined with moves forward, backward, and sideward as well as different arm movements.  This makes it hard for the tracker to measure accurately.

  • Trackers may not estimate calories expended accurately.  In 2015, a team of researchers in Iowa State University’s Department of Kinesiology tested four consumer fitness trackers and two research monitors to see how well they measured calorie expenditure during sedentary, aerobic and resistance activity. The top performer had and error rate of 15.3 percent while the least accurate model had a 30.4 percent error rate.

While trackers count walking and running steps well, they are not nearly as accurate with other activities that require agility moves such as playing basketball or dancing. These activities have complex foot work with short and long strides combined with moves forward, backward, and sideward as well as different arm movements.  This makes it hard for the tracker to measure accurately.

Trackers may not estimate calories expended accurately.  In 2015, a team of researchers in Iowa State University’s Department of Kinesiology tested four consumer fitness trackers and two research monitors to see how well they measured calorie expenditure during sedentary, aerobic and resistance activity. The top performer had and error rate of 15.3 percent while the least accurate model had a 30.4 percent error rate.

  • The University of Wisconsin-La Cross study had similar results.  The difference between measured and predicted kcals ranged from 13 to 60 percent, with some devices over predicting and some devices under predicting. None of the devices was accurate across all the activities for recording calories burned, so picking an activity device to record caloric expenditure may not be the best option.   

The University of Wisconsin-La Cross study had similar results.  The difference between measured and predicted kcals ranged from 13 to 60 percent, with some devices over predicting and some devices under predicting. None of the devices was accurate across all the activities for recording calories burned, so picking an activity device to record caloric expenditure may not be the best option.   

  • Sleep experts question the validity of wearable devices to not only measure the hours of sleep but type of sleep.  For someone with no sleep issues or disorder, the device may give a general idea of sleep quantity.  However, to understand completely a person’s sleep cycle, one has to measure brain waves, muscle tone, and even eye movement.  

Sleep experts question the validity of wearable devices to not only measure the hours of sleep but type of sleep.  For someone with no sleep issues or disorder, the device may give a general idea of sleep quantity.  However, to understand completely a person’s sleep cycle, one has to measure brain waves, muscle tone, and even eye movement.  

At the end of the day, fitness trackers are an interesting addition to the wellness world.  While not entirely accurate, they do provide a pretty good estimate of how active you are on a daily basis and are great at counting steps.  For many, the motivational messaging, reminders, and goal setting that are programmed into the devices is making a difference.  If wearing an activity tracker helps folks to move more, eat better, and get to bed on time, it is a win!  As always, it is best to speak with your physician before starting any fitness or diet program.  

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY.  For questions or article suggestions, contact Lorraine at (585)335-4327 or lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org.  

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