There’s been a huge debate lately about wearable devices like Fitbit, Jawbone UP, smartwatches, etc. First, wareable.com pointed out most buyers of fitness trackers are ALREADY fit (and well-off), and then a study came out indicating wearables were no more accurate than the pedometer in your existing smartphone. So who’s using them and are they helping anyone?
Let’s start with the audience for fitness trackers. Wareable.com pointed out that the American Medical Association published a study that indicated the users of fitness trackers were early adopters who were already fit, and who could afford to buy an extra device. Basically, if you have disposable income for a gym membership/team sports and you like technology, you probably own or want to own a fitness tracker. You’re also likely to skew younger, which puts the health odds further in your favor. None of this is bad or even surprising, but the argument was that fitness trackers don’t solve health issues any more than any other piece of fitness equipment. If the user doesn’t want to work out, they’re not going to pursue it, regardless of the cost.
Second, there’s a study out right now that determined several fitness trackers were less accurate than a smartphone pedometer. Outside Magazine did a great job of tearing that apart, pointing out the study used older devices (Fitbit Flex and Nike Fuelband), and that waist-worn trackers were the most accurate of all devices. They also pointed out that adding in heart rate data was far more helpful than just steps alone, since that will better measure exertion and exercise.
Sifting through all this, what it means at the end of the day is this: a fitness tracker is as a good as the user. If you pick up a Fitbit Flex and religiously track your steps, and it encourages you to take more steps and become more active, it doesn’t matter if it measured 10,0000 steps or 9,999. If you were only taking 4,000 steps before, and knowing the Fitbit was tracking you encouraged you to do those extra loops around your neighborhood, it’s working for you, regardless of the specific accuracy. If you want deeper accuracy, then using a heart rate monitor will give you a much richer view of your health, but, again, if you slap on a device that measures your heart rate but don’t do anything with that data, it’s of no use to you.
This is common sense, but it also smacks down some of the common complaints against fitness trackers. Someone with a $10 pedometer, or even a $50 Misfit Flash, may be more successful than the person who buys a $250 Fitbit Surge, if the person with the cheaper device is using it to drive their fitness higher and the person with the Surge is just passively tracking their everyday life. These studies and arguments against trackers are akin to saying a Motorola RAZR flip phone is as good as an iPhone. After all, they both make phone calls and send texts, and it appears that most people need both of those functions!
The hard part is what happens to users when the novelty of a fitness tracker wears off. Is there a point where you just don’t need to track your steps, because you already know your level of fitness? Personally, I like using a tracker for accountability reasons. On a rest day, I usually hit around 7,000 steps a day, and on a workout day I hit over 10,000. I don’t need a tracker to tell me that, because it’s a consistent result. Instead, a tracker acts like the old “string tied around your finger” reminder; by wearing it, I am constantly reminding myself in the back of my head that movement is important. I should get up and walk away from my office every hour or so, I should walk the dog the extra block tonight. Sure, I know these things without a tracker too, but it’s an external motivator that keeps me from getting too lazy, and that’s not an easy thing to quantify in a study.
What’s your take on fitness trackers? Do you use one? If you do use a wearable, which one and for what purpose, and if not, did you own one and skip it or do you just not bother?