Fitness Trackers – Do they work?

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Fitness Trackers – Do they work?

Natalie Wischer (RN, BN, RM, CDE, Grad Dip Mgt)
Executive Director, Australian Diabetes Online Services

It was in the not so distant past that the term “fitness tracker” did not even exist. Fast forward to today and walk into a gym or even a business meeting and you would be hard pressed to find someone not adorned with one of these somewhere on their body. Nike’s Fuelband, FitBit, Jawbone Up and apps that track everything from breathing, sleep and diet have rapidly progressed past just simply the ideas in the heads of fitness and health scientists. The most sought after features often being the counting of calories and monitoring the number of daily steps taken. Yet, this is without a doubt, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what this technology can do.

Do Fitness Trackers Work?
The old adage of “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” rings loudly when asking if these devices can help with achieving fitness goals. Research has shown that if you want to stick to a new habit, monitoring is one of the best ways to make a change (Duhigg, 2014). If tracking something is burdensome, then it will be difficult to sustain. These devices, however, have significantly reduced the effort of having to manually monitor everything yourself. And yes they work: a recent study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine showed that people who wore pedometers lost more weight, spent more time being active and less time sitting than those not wearing them (Dallas, 2014).

Tracking simply gives you feedback on the realities of your life. Because, honestly, even if it feels like you have conquered the goal of 10,000 steps after a day of spring cleaning, the sad reality is that you probably didn’t. Research shows that people commonly overestimate activity by 3-4 fold (Willbond, 2010) and underestimate food intake, but by having more objective information we can clearly identify the problem areas and where changes need to be made.

Is there a downside?
As with most things in life, even healthy habits, sometimes moderation can become lost if you come to rely on a gadget.  There are certainly distinct personality types that are more likely to fall into this trap and these can lead to secondary issues such as stress as a result of not meeting the set goals. Some individuals can lose sight of their overall aims, such as improved strength and wellbeing in favour of meeting for example, a steps-per-day goal, and while, making 10,000 steps a day is terrific, if it’s keeping people from doing resistance training in favour of walking or running each day, then one could argue that tracking can lead to a mismatch of the ultimate goals.

Tracking every small thing day in day out can take a toll emotionally too because as we all know, conditions change daily. Despite best intentions, sometimes for no known reason you can feel tired, sore or just feeling not quite right and you’re not able to hit your goal, and if you are a slave to a device, you can unfairly beat yourself up over not meeting an arbitrary figure or worse still pushing yourself to meet this goal only to end up with an injury.

 

Making Trackers Work for You
Instead of monitoring for monitoring sake, it is important that you are clear about your goals. Write them down and decide on which metrics are most important to track and meet your goals. Finding devices with the most features you can get within your budget is usually a good start. Don’t get caught up in simply tracking steps and calories and neglect to look at all of other useful information such as sleep length and quality as this can be an enormous window into understanding why sometimes your expected progress is not tracking as it should.

For many people, wearable technology offers a subtle but successful motivational tool assisting in the achievement of health, weight and fitness goals and sustaining these over the long term. With Christmas coming up, consider suggesting the addition of a fitness tracker on your Santa wish list.

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