Are fitness trackers worth it?
It’s virtually impossible to hit the trails, gyms or even offices these days without seeing fitness trackers strapped to wrists, and if you run with a friend who wears one, it’s guaranteed you’ll never hear the end of how great it is.
More than just a heart rate monitor, today’s fitness trackers can provide you with an overwhelming amount of information, from how long you need to recover from a workout to how well you’re sleeping to the amount of calories you burn each day.
But are they worth it?
The primary reason people invest in a fitness tracker is to help motivate them to get, or stay, active. A 2015 study found that participants increased their moderate to vigorous physical activity by over an hour a week when wearing a tracker. Fitness trackers can motivate you using tools that remind you to get up and move around when you have been still for too long, or perhaps it’s just glancing down and seeing steps taken and calories burned that encourages you not to skip the days workout even if you are feeling sluggish.
Another aspect of fitness trackers that people really like is that they help you measure how much progress you’ve made in really quantifiable ways. Sometimes when it comes to training it can be hard to tell if you’re progressing or plateauing, and data like miles run or workouts completed can encourage a sense of accomplishment that in turn feeds your motivation. Some also allow very granular detail to be store such as weight used, reps achieved, routes run and endurance breakdowns which help paint a picture of how effective a program is for you.
It can be easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to training, whether that means hiking the same trail or running the same distance each time. Fitness trackers can be great for targeting your training towards specific goals, specifically when it comes to heart rate zones. Often you’re training in the wrong zone for what you want to accomplish – for example, weight loss – and a fitness tracker can help you alter your approach for better results.
The big barrier for a lot of people when trying to decide whether or not to buy a fitness tracker is the sheer cost of them, which can range from about £50 all the way up to nearly £750. Since you probably already own a smartphone, you might decide that downloading a free, or very cheap, fitness app will do instead as with trackers you certainly get what you pay for.
Though champions of fitness trackers will tell you all about the amazing data they can provide, there is some question over how accurate they are. Though like all technology, they’re probably improving with each passing day, a 2020 review of studies on fitness tracker reliability found that general accuracy varies according to brand and device, while heart rate measurement was more variable, with Apple Watch and Garmin being the most accurate and Fitbit tending toward underestimation. For energy expenditure, no brand of fitness tracker was found to be accurate so when you glance down to check the calories burnt after a heavy workout, its likely to be wrong. A big problem if you are basing your energy consumption (food intake) on that data. If it’s wrong then you could be gaining weight unintentionally.
Finally, there’s the argument that using a fitness tracker might just distract you from doing what you love and get you focused on the wrong things. After all, there are a great many mental, psychological and neurological benefits to getting outside in the fresh air that have nothing to do with counting steps or heart rate zones and you might miss these if you’re too busy looking at your watch. Your time outdoors may be better spent as far away from technology as you can get.
Buy or don’t buy one, just don’t rely on it too much. It should add to your health and motivation. The data should not be used to underpin any decisions around your long term or training plans.