April 26, 2017
How Well Do Fitness Trackers Really Work?
How do Fitness Trackers Work?
It seems like just about everyone is getting into the world of fitness. Many are augmenting the experience by using a fitness tracker. Smartwatches are the most popular, with brands such as FitBit leading the way. These devices track your sleep, steps, distance traveled and in some cases even your heart rate. They may even double as motivators by continually pushing us to reach our goals.
So do these devices really work, and if so, how reliable are they? To better understand fitness trackers, let’s look at what their purpose is and whether they’re really achieving it (and more importantly, if they can help us be healthier).
Fitness trackers provide information about our daily activities, reminders to get moving and a cool way to manage music. But the science is conflicted over whether they truly motivate their owners enough to make a major difference.
Two separate studies published in The Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that owners of fitness trackers did not show clinically significant increases in physical activity over roughly half a year.
That’s not to say there were no increases—in fact, studies universally showed an increase in global activity. It’s just that scientists weren’t convinced that the increase was enough to produce life changing results (they weren’t for instance, convinced that owning a fitness tracker was going to push someone out of type II diabetes). That being said, these results are not 100 percent conclusive; studies are biased towards people that are willing to participate in studies.
And while fitness trackers may not change someone from a couch potato into an Olympic runner, even small increases in activity can be life changing; the difference between barely reaching the mailbox and going out for some fresh air is only a thousand steps or so. Any additional push to rise up and get moving is quite literally a step in the right direction.
Fitness trackers are also a great way to quantify goals. You’ll see in a moment exactly how.
Sleep and Movement
One of the more interesting features fitness trackers have is related to sleep. By tracking wrist movements, these devices can get a picture of how long we sleep and what kind of sleep we’re getting. Excess tossing and turning may give us hints about poor sleep behavior that can lead to seeking appropriate help.
Improvements to sleep can make a major difference in your life. The difference between waking up tired and waking up fully rested can make or break your day. It’s often the main factor in determining potential productivity.
Naturally, fitness trackers also monitor physical activity. However, testing multiple different fitness trackers seems to yield varying results as far as recording steps—this results in poor inter-device reliability (different results for different devices). But the good news is that intra-device reliability is pretty good; if you use the same device repeatedly, it’s consistent with itself.
All of these results are presented and graphed in a way that helps device owners to understand how much sleep and activity they’ve been getting over a given period of time. For goal seekers, this is an excellent way to plan activities. It gives us something to shoot for and a way to qualify whether we’ve “hit the mark.”
Heart monitors are a tad more accurate; they provide a good indication of your beats per minute so you can aim for the appropriate cardiovascular zone for building stamina. They aren’t much fun to wear in some cases, as the best place to strap them on is across the abdomen (there’s a bunch of arteries pumping in there, with the abdominal aorta being the largest), but they’re great for reaching cardio goals.
One area that fitness trackers seem to match with well also receives a surprisingly little amount of attention. The sheer amount of data generated about user health is just waiting to be utilized healthcare community. Thanks to some recent efforts, that may soon become a reality.
Last year, the UK’s National Health Secretary discussed changing that by approving apps that can feed information about your health directly into your records. While this is a small step from a single country, it marks significant progress towards aiding healthcare providers looking to help their patients become fit.
Simultaneously it also creates some challenges. Health information is—by its very nature—riddled with very personal data. Deciding to opt into self-reporting programs does create some non-negligible but manageable security risks.
Thankfully, you can protect yourself with a Virtual Private Network (VPN). If you’ve never used a VPN or even heard the word before, this guide by Secure Thoughts is a good way to orient yourself should you feel the need for additional safety.
Additionally, VPNs can be used to more completely access the internet (particularly those resources restricted by region). This can be helpful when looking up health resources, particularly on sites such as YouTube which make the most use out of geo-blocking.
Ultimately safeguarding health data is a team effort, so anything that can be done on the consumer end makes things easier for everyone involved.
At the end of the day, whether research supports fitness trackers or they’re found to be reliable between one another, it’s hard to argue that they don’t have a place in some of our lives. Smartwatches are particularly useful as they handle all sorts of fitness tracking. They also control some features on your phone, including music and notifications so you can spend less time looking at your phone and more time focusing on what’s around you.
About the Author: Cassie is a health blogger and expert who also spends time writing about technology and technological solutions. She finds these recent developments in the area of wearables extremely interesting and looks forward to the future.