Fitness Trackers: What good are they?

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How can a couple of hundred dollars worth of a band strapped to your wrist make you fit? Well, mine helped me lose over 100 lbs. without surgery.

But even that hasn’t made me a complete fan yet.

For me, it wasn’t the tracker alone that did it but guidance, motivation and advice by my physician also played a huge role. The tracker facilitated the process, but did not create it. Don’t get me wrong. I am bit of an excited geek when it comes to technology. I preordered my Fitbit Surge and Jawbone UP3 and love and use both but the data buff and journalist in me stays skeptical of blindly falling for the tech race.

While the fitness tracking industry is expected to grow to $50 billion by 2018, I feel there are some questions about the fitness trackers that can help buyers like me stay rational about their choice of gear.

  1. How accurate are they?

Fairly accurate in most cases but my UP3 is not smart enough to put itself on sleep mode based on my heart rate if I forget to do so. And we all know how messed up step count can be as gadgets particularly those worn on wrists struggle to recognize the difference between a step taken or a simple hand and leg movement while being seated.

A 2014 study at Iowa State University found fitness trackers could err when it came to measuring burned calories. On testing eight different models, the error ratings ranged between 9 percent to a startling 23.5 percent.”

The research published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise analyzed the performance of devices over a sustained period instead of evaluating individual activities to better mimic real-world conditions.

While we can count on the trackers for becoming smarter and more accurate in the future buyers must be aware of what their own fitness needs are at present and what particular trackers can do for them. 

  1. How effective are they?

A fitness tracker that doesn’t prompt action by its user is as good as a bulky treadmill gathering dust in a forgotten corner. In other words, buying a fitness tracker doesn’t make you fit, using it does.

Mitesh Patel, an assistant professor of medicine and health care management at the University of Pennsylvania has been researching on the effectiveness of fitness tracking.  In an interview with the Wharton School’s online business analysis journal, Knowledge@Wharton, Patel said he believes the devices alone can’t make anyone physically active.

A lot of people think that if we just give someone a wearable so they can track their steps, they’ll get more engaged; they’re going to improve their health. That is actually not true, especially for the people who are less motivated to start with.”

Patel maintains that motivation plays a greater role in making someone fit. “If you take someone who’s a “quantified selfer,” who runs a lot, they may get more benefit out of just having the device. But the people who are less motivated probably need other kinds of help,” he said.

His co-authored research published in the Journal Of The American Medical Association (JAMA) found out that more than half of people who buy fitness trackers stop using them. A third do so within six months. And for many, being consistent is a daily struggle.

  1. How green are they?

This brings me to yet another concern. By producing tons and tons of trackers that are discarded within a couple of years at best, are we not contributing to electronic waste?

Sure there are some eco-friendly devices out there. Swarovski Shine, for instance, is charged with sunlight. But such considerations are not manufacturers’ priority at present. The trackers are made to be used and then discarded. I was seriously disappointed when I couldn’t reset and pass-on my Surge to my mom. So once I stop using it, I will have little choice but to throw it away.

As the fitness industry matures further, consumers should demand the manufacturers to be more transparent about their green credentials.

  1. How affordable are they?

Not really, especially if we add Apple Watch to the group. Its elitist pricing bothers the returned Peace Corps volunteer in me. It’s priced to be like a Birkin, not a functional piece of fitness equipment.

I am not the only one put-off by the hefty pricing of most fitness trackers. According to the report published in JAMA, a survey showed that among those who buy wearables in America, about half are younger than 35 and nearly a third earn more than $100,000 a year. In other words, fitness tracking is being used by and targeted at people who do not need most help to stay fit. How sustainable could this approach be?

“If wearable devices are to be part of the solution, they either need to create enduring new habits, turning external motivations into internal ones (which is difficult), or they need to sustain their external motivation (which is also difficult),” the authors of the JAMA report write.

Researchers maintain that a piece of equipment alone cannot make us fit. I too firmly believe that serious weight loss should be monitored by a team. And it should not stop at weight loss. Staying fit entails many things including adopting a healthy lifestyle. Over the past year, I have been laser focused on maintaining my weight instead of losing more, with the help and advice of my physician and constant monitoring by trackers. For me Surge has proved to be a better tracker, while the UP3 makes sure I remain motivated.

Motivation and discipline (Tiny Habits speaks to the importance of making small, but disciplined lifelong changes) is the key to achieving any goal-fitness or not. They say you can draw a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Like most pieces of technology, fitness trackers should be seen as facilitators and used as part of a fitness program created and managed by specialists. Trackers, after all, are gadgets that can be a part of solution at best and not become the solution themselves. 

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