A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Fitness trackers: Are they worth it?

Woman wearing an activity tracker, tying her shoe - Fitness trackers: Are they worth it?

Fitness trackers measure steps pretty well but are less accurate for other types of activity, like weightlifting and cycling.

Wearable fitness trackers are more popular than ever.

“People have a fascination with seeing something objective to show how active they are,” said Jeremy Pomeroy, Ph.D., an associate research scientist at Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation.

Before modern fitness trackers, people used pedometers to track their steps. Today’s devices can track sleep, heart rate and speed, wake you up and remind you to be more active.

Sounds like a great tool for improving your health, right? If you’re thinking of buying a fitness tracker, here are a few things to consider.

Benefits of fitness trackers

Fitness trackers promote physical activity.

Research shows physical activity increases when people start using fitness trackers. Your overall health improves when you’re active and you may lose weight.

But data from device manufacturers shows many users lose, break or put away their fitness trackers after about six months, Pomeroy said. It’s unclear whether people continue exercising after they stop using fitness trackers and the long-term effects of using fitness trackers are unknown.

They can remind you to move.

Some trackers alert you if you’ve been sedentary too long. Reminders to move can improve your overall health.

They measure steps and sleep fairly accurately.

A device that tracks steps may be a good motivator if you’re a walker or a jogger.

“In experiments where people walk on a track or a treadmill, fitness trackers measure stepping pretty well,” Pomeroy said.

They also track sleep fairly well, with a few exceptions. If you’re awake but lying still, the device may count time spent asleep.

The downside

They don’t capture all types of activity.

While fitness trackers measure walking and jogging fairly accurately, current trackers don’t do as well measuring weightlifting, cycling, household chores and activities with subtle arm movements. Companies are working to improve how well their devices measure different activities, Pomeroy said.

Not reaching your step goal even though you’re active may erode your motivation, especially if you’re in challenges with other people who use fitness trackers.

They don’t calculate calorie burn very well.

“Too many factors come into play calculating how much energy goes into a step,” Pomeroy said. “Devices that estimate energy expenditure are probably way off.”

That means not relying on fitness trackers to budget how many calories to eat in a day.

You can become obsessed with using them.

It’s rare, but some people become obsessed with reaching their daily step goal. If you’re constantly checking your statistics or feel anxious when your device isn’t charged, take a step back.

Choose the best features for you

If you want to get a fitness tracker, pick one that works for your lifestyle.

Choose a device that tracks your heart rate if you enjoy activities that don’t log a lot of steps, like cycling. That way you’ll know how intensely you exercised.

If you work a desk job, a fitness tracker that reminds you to get up can help you reduce your risk of heart problems linked to too much sitting.

For more information about tracking your health, check out these Shine365 blog posts:

Counting calories: There’s an app for that

Heart rate: Monitor for safety AND success

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