Fitness trackers are everywhere. If you’re thinking about buying one, you might be pondering two key questions: “Can they actually help?” and “Is there one that’s right for me?”
Yes, they can help. Fitness trackers can tell you how many calories you’re burning, how many steps you’re taking, how far you’re running, how you’re sleeping at night and a lot more. Just know that the numbers they provide, which can vary in accuracy, are no substitute for an overall health assessment that you’d get from a doctor. You already know what you need to succeed so a tracker would be a bonus.
Still, trackers are an excellent motivational tool. They can urge you on to meet a goal, show you the progress you’re making in real time and make competition with friend’s fun. Trackers just can’t do the work for you. Just as with any piece of exercise equipment, you need to commit. So, to get the most out of a tracker, dedicate yourself to using the numbers to change your habits, whether it’s adding that walk after dinner or cutting out that bag of chips at lunch.
When it comes to picking the fitness tracker that’s right for you, the different options look, price, battery life, ease of use can make the process overwhelming. Consider this post only a starting point. Before you buy anything, read comprehensive reviews that involved some serious tire-kicking.
The shallow end of fitness tracking is a simple step count. The goal of 10,000 steps a day may be arbitrary, but there’s no disputing that more activity is better for you, and it provides a nice, neat number for people to shoot for. The question is: Can you trust your fitness tracker to accurately measure your progress?
“Measurement of steps tends to be pretty accurate”
For most people the counts are pretty good but check your step count on two different fitness trackers or compare it to your Smartphone’s estimate and you’ll see differences. Step counting may have been more accurate with early clip-on devices that were designed to be worn on the hip.
“The hip is really the best place for measuring steps and also most types of physical activity”. “A Smartphone worn in a pants pocket should be able to calculate steps very accurately.”
“At any moment your tracker could be 20 beats too high or low.”
Wrist Worn Devices
Wrist worn devices are inevitably going to record a lot of extraneous movement that has little to do with physical activity. Even if you wear your fitness tracker on your non-dominant wrist – which is the recommendation – it’s going to register all of your hand movements.
Your Smartphone may be more accurate at counting steps, but it’s not a great alternative in the real world. Consider that your phone isn’t always in your pants pocket; no one wants a phone in their pocket when they’re working out; and a lot of women’s clothing lacks pockets anyway.
Manufacturers moved away from clip-on trackers because people would lose the devices, forget to attach them, or accidentally send them through the laundry affixed to pieces of sweaty workout wear. But the move to wrist worn trackers also opened the door for heart rate sensors.
Measuring heart rate
Picking up a fitness tracker or smart watch with a heart rate sensor is much easier and cheaper today than it used to be, but how accurate are these sensors?
“The devices that measure heart rate tend to be pretty good at measuring heart rate at rest but have a lot more variability when measuring heart rate during exercise”.
“The problem is it really can’t know certain things about your body.”
Fitness trackers can be quite far out of step with your actual heart rate when you’re working out. When you get sweaty, they often fail to record your heart rate completely. There have been several studies that show fitness trackers and smart watches are fairly good at measuring heart rate at rest or in recovery but get less accurate as the intensity of exercise increases.
“Calories burned are a really hard thing to estimate”.
Most activity trackers are measuring the motion of your body and combining that with your height, your weight, your gender, and your age. Sometimes they might have asked you some lifestyle questions during setup and that data can be thrown into the mix.
“Even the cheapest trackers have all of the most important features.”
“The problem is it really can’t know certain things about your body.” “For example, it’s guessing about your relative proportions of muscle and fat and those things have a lot to do with your resting energy expenditure.”
Sleep Tracking Compared with Sleep Studies
If you have a sleep disorder or have ever suspected that you have an issue with sleep apnea, you were probably referred to a clinic that could load you up with electrodes and charge you a ton to let you know how, and how well, you sleep. But if you simply wanted an idea of how well you’re sleeping, and what you might be able to do to improve it, wearing a dozen electrodes every night certainly isn’t practical.
Using one or more sensors, they rely on science and machine learning to estimate when you are sleeping, what phase of sleep you’re in, and suggest various health tips and tidbits.
The Quantified Self Is on the Way
While consumer fitness and sleep trackers clearly have a long way to go before they are on a par with medical-grade procedures, progress has been and is likely to continue to be rapid. Sensors are getting smaller, less expensive, and more accurate at the same time that increased processing power and improved analysis tools are becoming available. What took a large watch a couple of years ago can now be done with a ring. As a next step, look for increased integration of personal tracking devices with the professional health care system. It is already starting to happen on a limited basis but is likely to become commonplace.
How to Choose a Fitness Tracker
First of all, it’s important to consider compatibility with your phone. The Apple Watch is going to be a great choice if you have an iPhone, but not so much if you don’t. There are also a lot of different features available and you need to decide if you want something just to track your activity or to serve as a smart watch, too.
“Even the cheapest trackers have all of the most important features”.