Just the other day, one of my friends (who happens to be really into fitness) came up to me… well, more like ran up to me, because she was so excited to show me her new Smart Watch fitness tracker. She was showing me how it tracks nearly every movement–from walking, to jogging, to bicycling… even swimming! With just a couple of rotations of the watch face dial, she could go into “waterproof mode” and the watch would begin tracking her swimming strokes.
Technology has been progressing so quickly, it’s hard for me to keep up with all of these newfangled doohickies.
I thought to myself, how accurate are these things at tracking all of these movements? Do they help keep us motivated and exercising more consistently? Let’s find out…
Are Fitness Trackers Accurate?
When it comes to their accuracy, as you can imagine, it varies by brand and the type of exercise being performed. I realized that some of these devices even track your sleep, which totally blows my mind.
I found a meta-analysis that looked at this very thing. Without getting too scientific, conducting a meta-analysis is highly respected within the field of research. This is because it involves collecting a bunch of studies on the same topic, like in this case the accuracy of fitness trackers, combine them, and perform one large analysis on all of these findings. I always complain that we can’t base conclusions on the results of just one study; we always need to look at other published findings as well. A meta-analysis does just that.
Accuracy of Number of Steps
In general, it seems as though most of these are fairly accurate at estimating the number of steps you walk or run each day. But, beyond that, the reliability begins to vary quite a bit.
Accuracy of Calories Burned
When it comes to estimating the number of calories burned, they tend to underestimate. This was surprising to me, since most trackers on fitness equipment at the gym like treadmills and ellipticals tend to overestimate calories burned.
Accuracy of Sleep Tracking
When it comes to tracking sleep, most trackers overestimated the time spent actually asleep.
Accuracy of Distance Traveled
When it comes to estimating actual distance traveled, it gets a little sketchy here, too. Distance was overestimated when moving at slower speeds and underestimated at higher speeds.
Accuracy of Heart Rate
Most have been found to be good estimators of heart rate, though.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data on their accuracy for estimating swimming distances. I imagine those studies are being performed as we speak.
Fitness Trackers and Motivation
Who really cares about all of this accuracy so long as it keeps people moving?
It turns out that fitness trackers do keep folks motivated in the short-term. Having a new gadget (or newfangled doohickey as I called it earlier) can be a good motivator soon after you purchase it… just like my friend that came running up to me showing me all of her tracker’s features. But that newness tends to wear off over time. Just like when we were kids–you finally get that brand new toy and swear you’ll play with it forever, only to find it in the garage collecting dust a month later.
Keep It Interesting
To keep that sense of novelty alive, we need to find ways to keep things interesting. For example, you could think of the tracker as a game and try and beat your previous score. Once you get tired of that, you could join a group and track your progress together or create a friendly competition.
The other issue is that these trackers don’t provide user direction for improvement. Let’s say you hit a plateau and don’t know how to proceed. The trackers won’t tell you how to break through that plateau.
Or say you want to get bigger shoulders like I have been told I need to do. These trackers won’t help show you how to go about this.
How long does the motivation actually last? Based on the data I have seen–about 4 weeks.
The Bottom Line
If purchasing a fitness tracker helps someone go from exercising sporadically to becoming more committed and consistent, even in the short-term, then by all means it’s worth it. I always try and weigh whether the behavior is more likely to help or harm the person. In this case, the risk of harm is minimal (except maybe to your pocket book).
Instead, a fitness tracker has a number of potential benefits. Plus, they can help you become more aware of your other health habits, like sleep. And we know that even small wins can help transform lives.
If you do end up purchasing a fitness tracker, just know that the accuracy can vary and to keep you motivated, especially after that first month, consider making the tracking process more interesting by creating some friendly competition or getting your friends to join you on your fitness path.